Blogs & Comment

It's time Canadian CEOs start speaking out on political issues: James Cowan

Their silence harms us all

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Louis Audet’s speech to the Montreal Board of Trade in late January began with the usual boilerplate. The Cogeco CEO boasted about the media giant’s $2 billion in revenue, the testing of an “ultra-high-performance video platform” and its “passion for authenticity.” But at the bottom of the fourth page, the speech shifted from nothing special to noteworthy: Audet slammed the Parti Québécois government’s charter of values, or Bill 60, as “damaging to our economy.” He argued its plan to bar religious symbols in the workplace would be “xenophobic” and cripple immigration to Quebec.

“Let us not play with fire,” he implored the crowd.

Here was a Canadian executive offering a blunt opinion on public policy—a sight as rare as Sasquatch on Bay Street. Despite working in an industry vulnerable to the whims of governmental regulation and subsidy, Audet spoke out. Not only because he found the PQ’s proposal “embarrassing,” but also it would harm the province’s economy—and Cogeco’s future profits in turn.

Our executives are too often silent on political issues, even when it’s in their self-interest to speak up. In the United States, the mingling of business and politics is so common, there are Wikipedia pages tracking executive endorsements of presidential candidates. In Canada, such endorsements could be listed in a single tweet (i.e., Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman backed­ Stephen Harper in 2006). I first started thinking about this cultural difference in the midst of the Rob Ford crack scandal, when high-profile academic Richard Florida and the Toronto Star both questioned why no one from Toronto’s business community had spoken out. Even a modest statement from a bank CEO could make a difference in the current mayoral race, by articulating what the business community would like to see in a mayoral platform—and endorsing a candidate.

If Ford’s shenanigans seem like a parochial concern, the Keystone XL pipeline is one of national importance where there’s clear abnegation of leadership by corporate Canada. Indeed, the business leader most often associated with the proposed pipeline is Tom Steyer—a former hedge fund executive who opposes its construction. It is telling that when a Steyer-backed anti-Keystone ad aired on the night of Barack Obama’s state of the union address, it was the Conservative party—not TransCanada, that actually wants to build the pipeline—that responded with an ad of its own (and then, only online).

TransCanada and its associates have lobbied vigorously behind the scenes for Keystone. What’s missing is an effort to engage the public on why the project matters—and what policies might help make it happen. A survey conducted by Sustainable Prosperity, an Ottawa-based research group, last year found 10 energy giants—including BP, Suncor and Shell—all assume a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system will be introduced and have begun to plan accordingly. Such modelling demonstrates a carbon-pricing regime is manageable; the Canadian government’s ongoing obfuscation on the subject isn’t helpful. The Conservatives have promised new emission requirements for eight years. It would be far easier for the U.S. president to approve Keystone if Canada showed some interest in addressing his wider call for action on greenhouse-gas emissions. The oil industry needs to demand a rule book so they can get on with the game. Lack of clarity is now doing more damage than new regulations could.

Business leaders are likely worried about political blowback, or being accused of exerting undue influence on public officials. But there’s considerable evidence the public would welcome political engagement from the business community. In the annual Trust Barometer survey published this year by global consulting firm Edelman, 79% of respondents believe industry has a part to play in shaping policy. Moreover, 62% say they trust business while just 51% trust their politicians. It would benefit all Canadians if our CEOs found their inner Louis Audets—as well as their voices.

James Cowan is deputy editor of Canadian Business