Blogs & Comment

As Rob Ford scandals multiply, where is the business community?: James Cowan

Silence speaks volumes

(Photo: Chris Young/CP)

(Photo: Chris Young/CP)

In the midst of a week where Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, admitted driving while drunk, was censured by his colleagues, and defended himself against accusations of sexual misconduct in the crudest possible terms, the author and university professor Richard Florida noted “Toronto’s business leaders lie silent,” as the chaos continued.

His point, at first, seemed a bit naive. If Ford will not listen to public opinion, his colleagues or his hand-selected deputy mayor, it seemed unlikely that he would suddenly heed the advice of, say, a bank CEO. Furthermore, Toronto’s business community had expressed itself, through its Board of Trade. “We believe the current situation must be a distraction for the Mayor and therefore it is not possible to put Toronto first,” wrote President and CEO Carol Wilding on November 1. “It is our view that Mayor Ford cannot effectively fulfill these duties and others while this cloud hangs over him and the city.” Like every other call for Ford to take a leave of absence, this too was ignored.

But if it is unlikely Bay Street could help force Ford from office, Florida’s rumination does underline a failing of Canada’s business community. During the last presidential election, dozens of business leaders (Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Marissa Meyer, George Soros…) endorsed Democrat Barack Obama. Dozens of other (Charles Schwab, Meg Whitman, Lee Iacocca…) backed Republican Mitt Romney. But in Canada, I can think of one high-profile endorsement of a federal political leader, when Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman backed Stephen Harper over his Middle East policy in 2006. There is a clear reluctance on the part of Canada’s business elite to engage on political issues. This summer, I wrote a profile of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, focused on his economic policies. I placed 15 calls to various CEOs to gauge their opinion and whether they thought he would help, or hurt, their business. None of them agreed to talk, with a couple saying they never talk politics in public.

When business folks do engage on public policy, it tends to directly involve their bottom line, like the recent feud between the big telecommunication companies and Harper over foreign ownership rules. But their failure to engage on issues outside their own day-to-day operations is noteworthy. It might partly relate to the lack of sway they have financially, given the federal ban on corporate donations to political parties. “Bay Street no longer matters in Canadian politics,” Kenneth Whyte recently wrote in Maclean’s. “And it will not matter whichever party is in power so long as the current fundraising rules hold.”

Which is a shame. The notion that the only contribution that CEOs can make to the political process is cutting cheques is clearly disproved by the American experience. Sure, Warren Buffett can make whopping donations to his chosen candidates, but he’s also proven to be a vocal advocate for tax reform. Bill Gates regularly engages on foreign policy issues. Myriad CEOs voiced displeasure about the congressional shenanigans surrounding the debt ceiling.

Business leaders might worry that they’ll be accused of self-interested meddling if they speak up. They might worry about making political enemies. But as people with experience solving complex problems, leading complex organizations and coping with regulatory and legal issues, they have a valid and vital perspective to express on matters of politics and public policy. So, no, it is unlikely the business community could help oust Rob Ford. But they would be able to help articulate what the city needs in a mayor and help it pick a better one the next time. If only they’ll speak up.