A man of influence: Thomas d'Aquino

For three decades, Thomas d'Aquino has fought for Canada's growth and progress. Now, he's ready to pass the torch.

Trying to mediate between public and private initiatives used to be like going to the dentist. Just as he approached your molars with that nasty drill of his, you’d grab him by the gonads and, with the sweetest of smiles, suggest, “Now, we’re not going to hurt each other, are we?”

That was how, in simpler times, business and government managed to maintain an uneasy peace. But ever since the Great Recession That Bugs Us Still, the two spheres of influence have spilled into each other. These days you never know: does driving your new Chevy to the levy mean you’re helping to save capitalism, or are you performing a patriotic act of public policy.

That melding of private and public purposes seems like an appropriate moment to celebrate the departure from Ottawa of Thomas d’Aquino, who will soon be leaving his perch as the most influential lobbyist in Canadian history. He once explained to me that he really didn’t mind being called a lobbyist, since “the Pope is a lobbyist too.” I never considered His Holiness in quite those terms, but on second thought, it seemed like a valid comparison: both men treated their positions not as jobs, but as missions — and each of their policy pronouncements was couched in the patois of unimpeachable papal bulls. D’Aquino’s operational code was not so much to impose his private agenda on government priorities as to provide pro-business policy options, doing his damndest to make their acceptance all but inevitable at crucial moments in Ottawa’s policy debates.

An unassuming gent in terms of his public image, d’Aquino pretended to be a harmless kind of Clark Kent. Yet in terms of his self-imposed mandate of turning free enterprise into Canada’s state religion, he walked on water. He was the first special interest pleader who broke the mould and, instead of merely suggesting improvements to the laws of the land, actually authored some of them himself, or at least ghostwrote their intent. For most of three decades, he ran what amounted to a parallel government, first under the banner of the Business Council on National Issues, and since 2001, under the renamed Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

As the major-domo of these über-organizations, which bring together the heads of 150 of Canada’s most powerful business empires, representing $4.5 trillion in assets and more than $850 billion in annual revenues (three times the national budget), d’Aquino drastically escalated the corporate clout of his members. He launched more right-wing causes and crusades than any active politician, while remaining well-nigh invisible, and preferred it that way. I once referred to him in print as Canada’s “prime-minister-in-waiting.” But looking back at his spectacular career, I realize that this was an inadequate description.

When it came to how government policies impact the business climate, Tom considered himself to be Mr. Action Central, and he was not fond of waiting. “If you ask yourself, in which period since 1900 has Canada’s business community had the most influence on public policy, I would say it was in the last twenty years,” he told me in a rare late-1990s interview.” Look at what we [at the BCNI] stand for and look at what all the governments, all the major parties…have done, and what they want to do. They have adopted the agendas we’ve been fighting for in the past two decades.”

That was an accurate assessment, and the fact that during his tenure no federal budget was drafted without first soliciting his input made d’Aquino impossible to ignore. (As minister of finance during the late 1970s, Jean Chrétien once publicly confessed, “I don’t do my budgets without consultating with the Business Council on National Issues.”) D’Aquino was single-minded, possessed by an almost evangelical fervour in the pursuit of his causes. But he was also a small-town boy playing in the big leagues, and remained awed by his own accomplishments.

Born and raised in Nelson, B.C., D’Aquino graduated with honours from the London School of Economics. “I took one of the very first courses that was offered on the law of European institutions, which really focused on European union,” he recalled. “That got me very interested in the role of transnationals operating within the European Union, and then when I went on to do management consulting in Paris, I worked only for transnational companies, primarily in Europe. That and my studies at LSE hooked me into this idea that the winds of change were already sweeping over Europe and ultimately would sweep over North America.”

When he returned to Canada, he worked for three years as a special assistant to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, later shifting to the private sector. The BCNI had been established five years before d’Aquino was recruited as its president and CEO by such Establishment pillars as Earle McLaughlin of the Royal Bank, Ian Sinclair of Canadian Pacific and Paul Desmarais of Power Corp. of Canada. The dedication of his organizations’ members to their cause was hard to exaggerate. When Arthur Child, the CEO of Calgary’s Burns Foods Ltd., died in the spring of 1996, for example, he bypassed some family obligations to leave a cool $1 million of his personal wealth dedicated to propelling d’Aquino’s efforts.

As the animating agent (president and CEO) of the organizations that brought together the nation’s wealthiest and most influential corporate honchos, he met their epic expectations. They accorded him a virtually unlimited mandate to alter Canadian public policy more in line with their aspirations and balance sheets. It was a concentration of power that even the mighty C. D. Howe, at the height of his powers during the Second World War, might have envied. Much reviled by his critics, d’Aquino was very good at what he did. For one thing, whenever he made a policy pronouncement, he was guaranteed an audience. In the fall of 1997, for instance, when he gave a presentation on Canada’s environmental goals prior to the Kyoto Conference on global warming, no fewer than 17 Ottawa deputy ministers gathered to watch his slide show, a record seldom surpassed. A tall, humourless gent, he outmanoeuvred the few bureaucrats who dared take him on by the simple gambit of being smarter — and faster — than they ever dared to be.

D’Aquino’s boldest venture was his success in dictating the 1986 revision of Ottawa’s competition bill, the federal legislation that is supposed to keep piratical corporate instincts in check. “We had previously decided that Canada needed a new competition law,” he recalled. “Attempts to bring the business community to heel on the issue had all failed. When André Ouellet was named minister of consumer and corporate affairs, we had lunch in his Centre Block office and he said, ‘Look, one minister of consumer affairs after another has tried to bring amendments to the competition law, and they’ve all failed. What are we doing wrong here?’

“‘André,’ I said, ‘the time has come for Canada to have a new act that is not antiquated, but Ican tell you something right now: if you pursue what has been the historical approach — that business is bad, and we’ve got to bring in a law to tame them — it will never work. If you bring in a different approach, I’ll turn the business community around and we’ll work with you.’”

According to d’Aquino, the minister replied, “That’s fine. You’ve got a deal.” During the next three years, the BCNI spent $1 million on the project, hired its own team of 25 lawyers headed by Toronto’s Bill Rowley and by 1985 had produced a 236-page master plan. Incredibly, it became Canada’s new Competition Act, virtually word for word. As might be expected, there were no provisions for class-action suits; corporate monopolistic conspiracies were so vaguely defined that they were just about impossible to prove; and prosecutions were moved from criminal to civil courts. It was the only time in the history of capitalism that any country allowed its anti-monopoly legislation to be written by the very people it was meant to restrain.

D’Aquino’s most dramatic intervention was his pivotal advocacy of the pro-American side of the Great Free Trade Debate of 1985–88. His organization spent $20 million in Canada’s most intense lobbying effort ever. D’Aquino had launched the idea as early as 1981, when both the Liberals and the Conservatives were against even exploring its prospects. He became obsessed by the advantages of free trade, but his greatest roadblock was Brian Mulroney, the incoming prime minister at the time, who was dead set against such a deal with the Yanks — until a street-corner conversion, when he ran into d’Aquino. “After he was elected but just before Brian moved into 24 Sussex, and while he was still living in the Opposition leader’s house at Stornoway,” d’Aquino told me at the time, “I was walking along Acacia Avenue and ran into him. ‘Lookit,’ he said, ‘I know you people have been promoting this idea of free trade now for a couple of years, and I’ve read your most recent paper. It’s got a lot of appeal, and I’m really looking at it with great interest.’

“That was within 10 days after the election, and it was the first favourable sign that I had seen from any of the Conservative leadership,” d’Aquino exulted. “Brian had sufficiently high regard for the BCNI that if we thought it was a really important issue, he felt he should at least take a good hard look at it. And he did. By the end of that autumn, he had bought the argument. The Shamrock summit followed in March, and the rest is history.”

Not all of d’Aquino’s Ottawa assignments went smoothly. When Chrétien returned to Ottawa in the early 1990s as leader of the Liberal Opposition, one memorable winter evening, at a European ambassador’s residence, there was a shouting match between d’Aquino and the veteran Quebec politician that shookup those who witnessed it. “There were four tables set out for dinner,” d’Aquino recalled. “Jean and I were at the same one, but he was at one end and I at the other, talking with the ambassador. I could overhear him saying, ‘You know the business community of Canada, it’s done me in. I’ve been trying to raise money for the party and I can’t get no pennies out of those guys, after all I did for them ? See that big shot d’Aquino over there? He’s my problem cause he’s leading those big business guys!’

“It was becoming somewhat embarrassing,” d’Aquino confessed, “so I said, ‘You know, Jean, I really don’t know why you’re so up in arms. You’ve accused us of being great supporters of Brian Mulroney. Let me remind you that corporate Canada was largely supportive of John Turner ?. You want to rip up the free trade agreement, and we are dead opposed to that. You said the deficit wasn’t a problem, and you’re dead wrong.’ The discussion got so heated that at one point I said, ‘You know, Jean, the party you lead bears no resemblance to the party I once served. In fact, you people are not qualified to run Tanzania!’”

The feud didn’t last very long. One summer day not long after the catfight, when the Liberals had been elected to office, Chrétien called d’Aquino and asked if he and Aline could come over and see Tom’s house, cantilevered over McKay Lake, in the heart of Rockcliffe. The two couples spent three hours in pleasant chit-chat. After that, the prime minister had little problem implementing his lakeside host’s BCNI agenda. The circle had been closed.

The most far-reaching of d’Aquino’s many crusades was his unsuccessful bid to turn into law the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which, until public protests flared and eventually forced an indefinite postponement, the Chrétien government was prepared to sign. The specific proceedings were kept so secret that there was no parliamentary debate on the issue, even though the MAI represented the greatest potential threat to Canadian sovereignty since we traded Pam Anderson for Howard Stern.

Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley will join the CCCE full-time on Oct. 19 and take over as its CEO on Jan. 1, 2010. He boasts an appropriate pedigree, but it is doubtful if ever again Ottawa will buy the notion, so successfully propagated by Tom d’Aquino — that what is good for big business is necessarily good for Canada.