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book review

Thomas d'Aquino at the BCNI CEO Conference on April 5, 2000.DEBORAH BAIC

  • Title: Private Purpose, Public Power
  • Author: Thomas d’Aquino
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Signal, an imprint of McLelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House
  • Pages: 472

For a serious policy wonk, Tom d’Aquino doesn’t take himself too seriously.

D’Aquino spent five decades at the intersection of political and business power in this country. As the long-serving chief executive of the Business Council of Canada, he was a trusted adviser to three generations of prime ministers and chief executives. Think of an important economic issue – free trade, the national energy program, Quebec separation, the global financial crisis. D’Aquino was a central player in all these national dramas.

For a quintessential insider, the challenge of writing about what played out behind closed doors, and the leadership lessons learned, is keeping the tale spicy without betraying confidences and alienating the most powerful people in the country.

There’s a limited audience for a 472-page dissertation on the evolution of Canadian public policy. There is a far larger interest in a highly readable book that – to steal a line from the musical Hamilton – repeatedly puts the reader in the room where it happened. D’Aquino’s memoir, Private Power, Public Purpose, succeeds because it entertains while delivering a warning on what ails Canada, and how to fix it.

Ever wondered what happens in Davos, when business and political elite gather in the Swiss Alps for the World Economic Forum? D’Aquino captures – and defends – the magic of these meetings by detailing a 1995 dinner that saw him, hedge-fund billionaire George Soros and the late mining entrepreneur Peter Munk conclude their meal by writing a sternly worded letter to then-finance minister Paul Martin. The trio warned that Canada’s soaring deficits were turning the country “into an honorary member of the Third World.”

They wrote the letter on a paper napkin.

D’Aquino doesn’t detail how the finance minster reacted to receiving fiscal policy advice drafted on cocktail-party debris. He does proudly write that several weeks later, Martin tabled the first in a series of austerity budgets and vowed to slay the deficit, “come hell or high water.”

While lifting the curtain on the World Economic Forum, d’Aquino delivers one of several attacks on populist political tactics. While not naming Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who has said he would ban cabinet ministers from attending, d’Aquino writes he is “surprised and disturbed about the conspiracy theories that are currently swirling around the organization.” He calls the idea that the forum has the power to dictate global policy “preposterous” and writes: “When I see such conspiracy theories manipulated for shameless political gain, it is doubly disappointing.”

The child of Italian immigrants, d’Aquino was born in Nelson, B.C., and spent the early years of his career as a lawyer and business consultant, with stints in London and Paris. That international experience shaped a belief that corporate leaders have a right, and an obligation, to be engaged in shaping and executing public policy. That view was at odds with the two solitudes of business and government that prevailed in Canada through to the 1970s.


When the CEOs running a predecessor to the Business Council of Canada hired d’Aquino in 1981 to bridge the deep divide by building ties to government, they endorsed his vision of capitalism linked to social purpose. D’Aquino was an early advocate of the concept that chief executives must serve multiple stakeholders, not just investors. It’s now a mainstream view.

To illustrate both the evolution in corporate leadership and the qualities that make CEOs successful, d’Aquino dedicates a chapter of his book to sketching small portraits of entrepreneurs – Jimmy Pattison, Paul Desmarais Sr., Fogo Island’s Zita Cobb and construction czar Ronald Mannix. In the style of self-help manuals that sell like hotcakes in business circles, he distills the attributes that fed his friends’ fortunes, including ambition, integrity and humility.

Those hoping for dirt on political or corporate leaders will be left wanting. While d’Aquino takes shots at a handful of public figures – former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard draws pointed criticism for betraying both the federal Conservative party and former prime minister Brian Mulroney – the majority of his personal stories are told with humour and warmth.

D’Aquino does detail the bruising battles that shape politics and business. In 1985, Conservative finance minister Michael Wilson tabled a budget that partly removed inflation indexation in public pensions. D’Aquino publicly opposed the plan, adding to widespread opposition, on the grounds it would hurt the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens.

Wilson phoned to lay into d’Aquino, in an expletive-laden tirade. Mulroney stopped taking his calls. The government backed down on pensions, and instead raised corporate tax rates, a shift that caused pain for the companies that paid the bills at the Business Council. In Ottawa circles, this was known as the “d’Aquino tax.” But despite the tax hit, the council’s CEOs supported d’Aquino’s stand, a decision he said confirmed the business lobby group’s non-partisan credentials.

D’Aquino wrote Private Power, Public Purpose partly to relieve the tedium that came with being confined to his lakefront Ottawa home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The memoir, like most historic works, is rich in descriptions on the road we’ve travelled, but lacks a detailed map on how to navigate the challenges Canadians face.

Still, d’Aquino penned his engaging exploration of where Canadian public policy came from in part to inspire future leaders, as they determine where the country goes. He warns that this generation of CEOs and politicians is becoming complacent, failing to show the dedication and discipline needed to accomplish tough tasks; a greater effort is required, he argues.

“In the wake of a terrible pandemic, and with rising inflation, exploding public debt and threats to global peace, now is the time to set fresh and ambitious priorities and get on with the job,” he writes. “Nation-building on a grand scale requires focus and big ideas and ambition to match.” D’Aquino knows of what he speaks. Over five decades, he never lacked for big ideas or ambition.