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.

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6 comments on “As Rob Ford scandals multiply, where is the business community?: James Cowan

  1. Not sure it’s fair to compare the political activity of US vs Canadian business communities… In his book ‘Titans’, author Peter C. Newman suggests that the true economic control in Canada was wrested away from the government by the Business Council On National Issues (BCNI), now the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Even their current website claims they’re ‘working to build a stronger Canada and a better world’. To my knowledge, no US business group has that much power over the US government, especially not covering the past 20 or 30 years. So if Canadian businesses are already maxing out their financial clout, why would they make public statements that might rock the boat and shed light on their efforts?

  2. I would think it is a catch 22. I would think most business leaders see Rob Ford and Justin Trudeau in the same boat; engaging in criminal drug activities. If they comment on Rob they would have to comment on Justin and with the majority of Canadians in favor of Justin and legalizing drugs why would one want to stick ones head out to be slammed by the population that already thinks that the business leaders are thieves. I would think better to be quiet and concentrate on how to make money and keep people working.

  3. Pingback: The Implications of the Rob Ford Scandal for Canadian Business | The Past Speaks

  4. CANADIANS DONT SEEM TO LEARN THAT SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IN ELECTED POSTS HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH PERFORMANCE. IT SEEMS RISQUE OR SO CALLED INNAPROPIATE SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IS AN INDICATOR OF A BETTER EPRFORMER THAN OF A WORSE ONE. THE EXAMPLE OF COURSE GIVEN BY THAT EXTRAORDINARY US PRESIDENT, MR BILL CLINTON. HE WAS UNDISPUTEDLY THE BEST PRESIDENT THE US HAS HAD IN THE LAST 100 YEARS, CIGAR SMOKING NOTWITHSTANDING.
    WHERE THE FRENCH ACQUIESCE WITH HALF HIDDEN SMILES, AS IN THE BURIAL OF FRENCH PRESIDENT GEORGES POMPIDOU WHERE HIS WIFE AND LOVER STOOD SIDE BY SIDE, CANADIANS LOOK IN HORROR AT THE OUTINGS OF THE TORONTO MAJOR ? TSK TSK. YOU GUYS SHOULD WORRY ABOUT HIS PUBLIC MANAGERIAL SKILLS AND NOT HIS SEXUAL (OR NOT) PROWESS. SHAME ON THE MEDIA FOR TRYING TO HEIGHTEN THE SCANDAL BY LURING THE BUSINESS LEADERS INTO THE FRACAS. AND SHAME THE HYPOCRITICAL STANCE OF MOST PEOPLE WHO CONDEMN IN PUBLIC WHAT THEY DO PRIVATELY.