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John Manley waits to testify before the foreign affairs committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 11, 2008. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
John Manley waits to testify before the foreign affairs committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 11, 2008. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)


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John Manley: The opportunity of the bully pulpit that the president of the CCCE has is to try to respond to priorities that are not just of concern to business, but that are of broader concern to Canadian society. If you've got 150 CEOs - who are some of the most creative and innovative people in the country - focusing on a concern of national importance, then you've got some energy and some input that could be really valuable.

When you look at the statistics, there's no doubt that Canada has lagged in the area of innovation. And I don't think there's any question that that's one of the things that Canada needs to respond to. Some of it is in the area of public policy, and some of it is at the micro level. So I don't think it's my job to browbeat executives, and say "Why aren't you guys doing more R&D" or "Why aren't you being more innovative." But I think it is my job to try to engage them on an issue of real national importance and see if we can't work together with public policy makers to try to find some solutions.

Adam Radwanski: A common argument from more conservative business groups is that the government shouldn't be heavily involved in actively picking winners and losers. Are you comfortable with the extent to which governments are having to intervene in the current economy to prop up certain industries?

John Manley: Of course, I had to struggle with this when I was industry minister. What I used to say is that the problem is not picking winners or losers - the problem is that the government never seems to be able to shake the losers. Once we're in, we sort of get stuck in.

One thing I believe that I learned in my years in government - and I think that has really been borne out in the last 18 months - is that there are no really simple, general statements that apply to every situation. Especially in certain sectors, government policy is an important contributor to success or failure, and therefore governments need to be engaged. And that's true whether you're talking about financial institutions, where it's clear that regulation makes a huge different, or whether you're talking about energy and the environment, for example. Product safety...health...all of these things are places where you intersect. And they can be determinant of success or failure. So it's not as simple as to say government should just take hands off - that's just not going to happen.

Now, when it comes to a more narrow thing - when does it make sense for the government to make its balance sheet available to businesses who would otherwise fail - that's a much tougher call. I didn't have to sit in the boardroom at Industry Canada and discuss what to do about GM and Chrysler. Had I been there, maybe I'd have come to the same conclusions, maybe I wouldn't have. You've got a lot of factors to look at, and some of them are business, some of them economic, and some of them are political. So I wouldn't stand back and say that was a big mistake; I would say that we won't know if it was a big mistake for probably a couple of years.

Adam Radwanski: Your predecessor is considered to have a huge impact behind the scenes, but you don't see him popping up in the headlines every second day. Do you see yourself taking a somewhat more public approach to it?

John Manley: I think it's going to be difficult for me to maintain a very low profile, simply because people like you call me. I think I will have to learn where I want to be public and where I don't.

I also know, having been on the receiving end of advice from all kinds of places, that when you're actually trying to achieve something with government, sometimes it's better to stay out of the limelight and work behind the scenes. When you're a minister, you don't like an open letter telling you something that you'd be perfectly happy to hear in a private setting, and in fact might apply. If the president of the CCCE says the government should do X, and they do X, then you're going to have a whole bunch of people jumping on them saying "Oh, they're just doing what big business wants them to do."

I've already seen press releases from the Council of Canadians, for example, which as a practice demonizes individuals; I haven't even started yet, and they're demonizing me. I think you want your advice to be taken, you'd better give it in a private fashion.

Adam Radwanski: The perception is that your relationship with the current government is pretty decent, especially considering your work on the Afghanistan report, but how much of a relationship do you have its ministers?

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