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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)

Interview

'In marketing terms, I have my own brand' Add to ...

Adam Radwanski: What drew you to this job? It's a little different from what you've been doing previously...

John Manley: Well, it's an opportunity to do in a formal way some of the things that I have been doing in my time at McCarthy-Tetrault. I've found there has been a need for a bit of an interpreter between the business community and government. I've had a bit of a unique perch in both, and I know how incomprehensible the logic of government can be to the business world, and how inexperienced many in government tend to be with the demands of business, particularly in the large corporate world. And I think I can play a useful role between them.

I think the second thing is that one of the great passions of my life is public policy. This is an opportunity to be deeply engaged in some aspects of public policy which have been of interest and concern to me for a long time, including while I was a minister, without having to run for election.

Adam Radwanski: Obviously, you've got a lot of qualifications in both government and the private sector. But do you have a sense of what specifically it was that drew the CCCE to you?

John Manley: They put together a target of characteristics. But I think key to it was the sense that I had a pretty varied experience in government, going from industry to foreign affairs to finance, plus deputy prime minister, and yet I've kind of gone beyond being a real partisan. And I think the work that I did on Afghanistan gave them confidence that I could be effective in dealing with governments of whatever political stripe.

Adam Radwanski: Speaking of getting beyond partisanship, what's the reaction been like from other Liberals? Some of them view this organization with some suspicion. Have you had much response from people you worked with previously?

John Manley: Yeah, pretty positive. Only one said, 'are you nuts'? But for the most part it's been positive. I mean, the Liberal Party in opposition always moves a little bit to the left. But I think they're also very conscious of the fact that they need to have good contacts in the business community - it comes with credibility. And therefore I don't think that they see this as being a negative thing.

There were some people that still hoped I would go back again and run for something, and they're certainly disappointed. I consider that to be kind of flattering.

Adam Radwanski: Is there an expectation that you'll approach the job in a way that's a little bit different from the way your predecessor did?

John Manley: I think everybody brings their own personal style to a different job. From my point of view, I bring a different range of experience than my predecessor had. There's no doubt that having been there so long, having been virtually the creator of the organization, CCCE had become something of a personification of Tom, and that's to his credit. So that's a bit of a hurdle for me to overcome. It'll take time and effort.

In marketing terms, I have my own brand I guess, in the country, and it's not the same as CCCE's. It's not overly contradictory of it, either, but it's different. And over time, those brands have to somewhat merge. So I think that it'll take some time.

I think that we're in a different period, as well, right now. We've seen an unprecedented level of government intervention in the economy, and I think that that in itself means some of the issues for the Canadian business community are different than they were even two years ago. As we emerge out of the recession - and more importantly, we've been through recessions before, but we've never been through a near collapse of the world financial system before, at least not since the 1930 - I think that there's going to be a lot of work to do on ensuring that public policy response is appropriately measured to ensure that we don't suppress innovation at the same time as we try to react to the problems that created the downturn.

Adam Radwanski: You've been outspoken even before this about your concern about a lack of innovation. Is it your job in this role to try to nudge the government on that, or to try to nudge the people who will be paying your salary, or both? How do you see yourself being able to help move that agenda?

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?

John Manley: Some of them I know, from the time that I was in Parliament - not a lot of them, quite a few have come in since.

I think they regard me as an honest broker. Part of my brand has been that I usually say what I think, and it's pretty much unvarnished. So I think they would expect that I would continue to conduct myself in that manner. I'm not going to surprise them, because they pretty much will know where I'm going to be coming from. I don't think when I was in Parliament, that I was the most partisan guy anyway - I don't think that was part of my persona. I'm a Liberal, and I've been a Liberal, and I was certainly loyal to the prime minister that I served and the government that I served. But it never struck me as being productive to tear down the other side. So I don't have that background to overcome.

I think that the relationship should be quite functional. I've had some calls from ministers since I took the job saying that they look forward to working with me ... I approached Afghanistan in as open-minded a fashion as I could, and I think both the Conservatives and the Liberals found that helpful.

Adam Radwanski: You alluded to some of the things that are said about the CCCE. There are some people who view it as a sort of a shadowy organization that sets the government agenda. That's no doubt a stretch, but is it as powerful as many people seem to think it is?

John Manley: I think power is widely diffused in the Canadian polity. I mean, I've done a budget - and yes, I received advice from the Council, from the Chamber of Commerce, from Greenpeace - in my budget we had a big green element. When you fashion a budget, even in a majority government, you've got a lot of interests to take into account. I don't think that power is very concentrated at all.

Now, I think the Council has succeeded in a couple of instances in really leading in terms of gaining public acceptance, and then government acceptance, for some major things. Probably the high point of that was the free trade debate in the 1980s, where Tom and the BCNI, as it then was, were very active, and I think contributed to a public acquiescence in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. And I think there was a major contribution to attitudes around public finance, which was useful when we came into office in 1993 and had to tackle the deficit. And I think they championed responsible tax reductions, which also became part of the national agenda and very much accepted by Canadians and by government.

So yeah, those things have been there. But they're not behind closed doors; they've been pretty prominent in making those cases.

Adam Radwanski: You mentioned free trade; obviously one of the big concerns right now is protectionism, especially in the U.S. Do you see yourself being able to lend particularly strong advice to the government on that, given that you have experience in both foreign policy portfolios and economic ones?

John Manley: I think so, and I think the key to it is to work with the government by building alliances with U.S. business. It's no secret that it's very hard for Canadian interests to find an ear in Washington. And therefore, we really need to figure out who our allies in the United States can be, and try to get their assistance in getting some of these issues heard. Because I think it's true that U.S. interests are also hurt by protectionism.

So the government's got a role to play, but business has a role to play also. And we have, in the Council, not a small number of members that have important U.S. activities.

Adam Radwanski: Obviously, it's early days still; you haven't even started the job yet. But how will you define your success in it? What's the goal you're setting for yourself in terms of what you want to achieve?

John Manley: I learned as a minister that there were two elements. One, if you want to achieve something, you'd better figure out what it is and work toward a goal. The other is, you never know what events are going to change your sense of priorities overnight, and you have to be able to move with the tide of changing events.

But I'm still at the stage where I want to set some priorities. I want to talk to members of the council across the country, get a sense of the things that they think really need to be emphasized. It's going to still take me some time to give shape to what those goals will be.

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