For four decades, Konrad von Finckenstein handled big, tough assignments for the federal government—as a Justice Department lawyer, legal adviser on free trade, competition watchdog and, for the past five years, the country’s chief communications regulator. The ride ended in late January, when the 66-year-old German-born lawyer and Queen’s Counsel retired as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) after a dramatic term in which he locked horns with media moguls and, occasionally, the government itself.
What are you going to do now? I will first relax and reflect. Then, I’d like to do something that is intellectually challenging and requires me to be both organized and creative. Alternative dispute resolution is something I might look at—I’ve certainly resolved enough disputes in the past.
Why did you become a bureaucrat, rather than, say, a private lawyer or businessman? I come from a long line of people who, on my mother’s side, served as pastors, and on my father’s side, were in the military or civil service. Business never came into my thinking, and I never regretted that. With the public service, you get responsibility quickly. In my first week as a Justice Department lawyer, the government decided to expropriate the Toronto waterfront to create Harbourfront. They said, “Nobody knows this brief so it might as well be you.” What a wonderful file for a brand-new lawyer. From then on, I became the troubleshooter. If there was a hot file that nobody wanted to touch, I got it.
What was your best moment? When we negotiated the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement in the 1980s. It went down to the wire, and at the very end, the key decision was, “Can we do this legally?” There was the dispute settlement process with binational panels that had never been done anywhere in the world, and we had to make the decision on the spot. We knew that the next day, every single lawyer and every professor in the country would question it. It was exhilarating, and the panels worked.
You later became a judge, but quit to run the CRTC. Why did you make that move? Being on the bench is wonderful. You deal with very important issues, but it’s a very lonely job. You play a lot of mental ping-pong with yourself. And I’m really a legal manager. I am well suited to running things, getting things done and getting people to concentrate on a common goal. There was no scope to do that as a judge.
Why weren’t you reappointed as CRTC chair by the government? I did not apply, and if I had been approached, I would have asked myself if I really wanted it. After five years, did I have more to contribute? I basically think it was time for somebody else to give it a shot. And you have to appreciate that most CRTC decisions have a clear winner and loser. After five years, I’ve ruled against everybody in the industry at some point, and they never forget that. They remember the one time they lost. If you ask them, I think none of them has a personal animus to me, or feels they were dealt with unfairly. But certain decisions that were very dear to them didn’t go their way.
Didn’t you butt heads with key government and industry people at various times, like former Shaw Communications CEO Jim Shaw? I was somewhat unhappy with press coverage. Did we butt heads with the government? No. Did we have differences of opinion? Yes, on some things. I did butt heads with Jim Shaw. You’ve got to give him credit—he ran a very successful company. I just didn’t like what I felt was the lack of respect when he appeared before me. I didn’t see any reason why I should treat him any differently than how he was treating us.
Are you concerned that the value of a public service career has declined? The career is still rewarding, but risk is different than in the private sector. In the private sector, risk is seen in terms of money; in the public sector, it is the impact of a mistake on the reputation of a minister or the government. You can take enormous risk in the public service, but you have to avoid getting on the front page of The Globe and Mail. Once you understand that is how government works, you can do an awful lot of things.