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How a business prime minister might have handled SNC-Lavalin

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How a business prime minster might have handled SNC-Lavalin

I’ve got nothing against Arts majors, either in general or in politics. For 40 years I taught in the Arts faculty at McGill University and before that I was an undergraduate there before receiving my own Arts degree. It’s the same Arts faculty where Justin Trudeau, Gerald Butts and Jennifer Prince (Judy Wilson-Raybould’s chief of staff) got their BAs (in, respectively, literature, English and theology, and political science). Some of my best friends are Arts graduates. My two sons are Arts graduates. Statistics Canada’s surveys of recent university graduates show that we Arts majors do just fine in the labour market, thank you, with very few of us actually driving taxis (though some of us older Arts retirees may consider Uber-driving in our spare time).

Listening to the testimony in the SNC-Lavalin affair over the last couple of weeks, it occurred to me that when big businesses come a-lobbying, Arts majors in office may be at a serious disadvantage that makes them easy prey.

Of course, some Arts majors are Marxists and hostile to business in every way. But the majority, including such evidently reasonable people as Trudeau, Butts and Prince, are likely subject to a different syndrome. It’s not just that they aren’t equipped to evaluate the claims of businesses petitioning them—whether in terms of the supposed social benefits that will follow from one kind or another of grant or tax concession or, as in this case, the social calamity that will ensue if the business is found guilty of the crimes of which it is being accused. It’s more that, having no experience of it themselves, they may regard business somewhat mystically as the guardian of the (to them) mysterious process by which the mother’s milk and common currency of modern politics—jobs for Canadians—are created. The result may be excessive deference to business and its, these days, innumerable requests for favours.

In the alternative universe I’ve imagined over the last couple of weeks, a tough businessman or businesswoman prime minister instead responds to SNC-Lavalin’s lobbying with a blunt suggestion: “How about you get yourself a business model that doesn’t involve serial bribery? Once your house is in order, we can talk. Of course, once your house is in order, there’s really nothing for us to talk about. Just get on with your business, as I and countless others have done.”

It’s hard to imagine an Arts major taking that line, not even an Arts major with the superabundant self-confidence of Prime Minister Trudeau. If you haven’t been in business yourself, my guess is you’ll have trouble saying what’s what to a business that employs hundreds or even thousands of people in your riding or province.

On the other hand, the business prime minister we need is not just any businessperson. Someone whose main business credential was an MBA, for instance, wouldn’t do. MBA schools fill their students with all sorts of soft-headed ideas these days, and pitch the message that the bottom line isn’t the real bottom line. We don’t need business people like that in politics—we’ve already got Arts majors!

It also shouldn’t be a businessperson whose background is in, say, dairy or telecoms or any other industry whose profitability depends on government protection. Nor in any firm where the government relations department is as big as the other line departments. Nor, it almost goes without saying, should it be a TV businessperson such as the one Americans elected president in 2016. That business person argued that having been bankrupt twice was actually an advantage. I don’t know. Wouldn’t we rather have business people who weren’t losers?

Preferably, our business prime minister would be someone who started or at least built up a real business—i.e. not a PR or consulting or communications business—who had his or her own money in the game, who faced real competition, ran real risks and prevailed, who operated in the world, not just local markets, and who rejects the current nostrum that to succeed in business in the 21st century requires complex, holistic, Chinese-style government-industry partnership.

It also obviously has to be someone who’s willing to put up with the mind-numbing, spirit-draining slog that is modern politics.

I realize the list of such selfless successful Canadians cannot be long. And there’s much to be said for the idea that people who are good in business should stay in business. But if we could find just a few of them and somehow work them into the federal cabinet, the country would benefit from the stricter separation of business and state—with business doing business and government governing—that I feel certain they would insist on.

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