Being given the business

Russell Wangersky
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I have never really been a proponent of the right-of-centre belief that governments would run better if they were run like a business.

Governments and business, after all, have very different goals. Governments should, and often do, address social needs in ways that are not fiscal winners.

Businesses, on the other hand, usually take the shortest, quickest route possible to the most money; that’s exacerbated by the fact

that senior executives are usually rewarded with bonuses for short-term fiscal performance — even if that performance actually damages a company’s ability to compete a few years’ down the road.

A bird in the hand, it seems, is worth any number of future fledglings.

But I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Canada’s governments actually did run more like businesses — especially right now, and especially because I’ve been in management roles in private business and know a little bit about what that land is like, and because the governments we have in place federally and provincial subscribe to the “be more like businesses” mantra.

What would happen if a senior executive and company spokesman — the kind of guy who ends up travelling the country doing motivational speaking tours to lift company morale — turned out to be

double or triple-billing his travel expenses? Would he still be kicking around, picking up his paycheque?

No. He’d fly back from his last little gig and find his key card didn’t work and all of his personal property was in a cardboard box at reception. There’d be an offer for the miscreant to repay all the cash, and the sole benefit for that would be that the police wouldn’t be called. There wouldn’t even be a memo announcing his departure — there’d just be a fight for his office and a round of quiet conversation about how bad his transgressions must have been.

What about if some action by a middle-manager, say, in abusing do-not-call lists with late-night robo-phone calls or something, led to the company’s business suddenly coming under the eye of a government regulator like the CRTC? Would the guilty party be promoted to the business equivalent of the Senate? No. They’d be singled out as a renegade and ritually sacrificed to whatever agency was looking for retribution, while the company fell all over itself trying to prove that it was squeaky-clean.

There certainly wouldn’t be any stonewalling and refusing to speak to the regulators, the kind of thing that at least one businesslike national party seems to be specializing in.

And what if a senior manager was found to have passed $90,000 or so to a government official? You only have to look at SNC-Lavalin to see how quickly you become 100 per cent dispossessed from a business if you’re caught in that cookie jar, and no one’s wandering around head office and saying it’s too bad you made just one caring mistake in judgment.

And would the company’s shareholders accept the president and CEO saying, “Gee, I didn’t know anything about any of this stuff. Those scamps”? Nope. There would be a new CEO before you could say “board of directors meeting.”

What would happen to a provincial manager who spent six or seven years pouring company money into making a division an “energy warehouse,” but the warehouse proved more adept at eating up or storing money, without paying anything back?

Five years in, there’s going to be a new divisional boss.

And the warehouse? It’s going to be closed or sold off if it’s not able to turn things around in one fiscal period.

What about provincially? If you were the general manager, responsible for the annual finances of a moderately sized business unit, and your fiscal projections were not just out of whack, but wildly out of whack in one direction or the other just about every year, would you be able to get away with the defence, “Hey, you know it’s really, really hard to forecast oil prices”?

If you were the management group for that division, could you sell head office on the fact that your workforce had grown by more than 60 per cent in eight years or so?

Bet you couldn’t.

You’d get the same kind of reaction you’d get if you told head office “we’re going to lose tons of money for the next two fiscal years, but we think 2015 might be OK.”

What about if you brought in a million-dollar-plus dental plan for your workers, and in the first year, you were 10 times or more over budget, costing the company loads of dough?

You’d be gone in that special way that makes fellow workers drop their voice to a whisper when they talk about you, just so they don’t get stained with taint-by-association.

Heck, think about it in municipal terms: if you were in charge of a section of a business, and took annual tours to conventions to attract cruise ships to your business — but couldn’t actually quantify the specific benefits for your division — you’d also be on a fast train to outta-here.

It is, in fact, a trademark case of talking the talk, while walking a different and gentler walk.

Governments: they’re business-like when it suits.

Otherwise, it’s just the suits.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: CRTC, SNC-Lavalin

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • James Williams
    June 02, 2013 - 12:49

    So what would your answer, surely not vote in a party that is Anti-Business and have publically stated that the first thing they would do would be to raise the corporate tax thus driving the majority of business out of an area? Or would you suggest ever so subtly that we as a city should vote out a business friendly mayor and vote in an individual who is so anti-business/corporations that you'd have to be blind not to see it.

  • Happily Retired
    June 02, 2013 - 12:03

    I agree with your point about the present political corruption, but could I add another point? It's not just the business community which holds its employees accountable. In fact, using the salaries of the CEOs of various banks might disprove that theory. However, if politicians and their cliques were also held to the same standards as ordinary "non political" public employees we would also be better served. For example, during the constituency scandal of a few years ago, it is somewhat hard to believe that many politicians could have really believed their claims for some of their constituency allowances were honest. However, at the end of the day the politicians were let off the hook and were only required to pay back the money. Those same politicians will now look at the electorate and say, "I paid back what I owed." It's as if they feel entitled to do what they did. Shortly thereafter, claiming procedures for ordinary provincial public employees were seriously tightened up. It were as if the "non political" public employees were blamed for the actions of the "political" staffers. At the same time "political staffing" went haywire. The big problem seems that over the years, politicians and their cliques have developed an unhealthy sense of self-entitlement and the decay is prevalent in all parties and at all levels. Some serious reform is required but we can't count on politicians to do it.

    • Eli
      June 03, 2013 - 12:49

      Bang on again Russell! The senior PC senator is advocating stricter rules for their expenses. She said something like ":Cabinet Business" on expense sheets just doesn't cut it. She wants more accountability and detail. Could we dare to expect NL follow suit? Kevin O'Brien's trips back and forth to Gander come to mind.

  • Cyril Rogers
    June 01, 2013 - 16:42

    Mr. Wangersky, your columns about politics almost always provoke a strong response in me, usually in total agreement with your take on things. It seem that the more politicians try to invoke ethics(talking the talk)the more they stray from any sense of morality(walking the walk)in their efforts to control everything. Both the provincial and federal governments are absorbed in their own agendas, at the expense of their citizens, and that makes them dangerous, in my opinion. We know Muskrat Falls will be a financial disaster for our province...yet the PC's press feather the nests of their corporate friends, in my opinion. The feds support it because there is something in it for their own corporate supporters, especially in N.S. I am alternatively angered and saddened by this situation, but what are we to do? How can the citizens of our province combat this colossal mistake when they simply will not listen or reconsider?

  • Pierre Neary
    June 01, 2013 - 10:10

    Fantastic column. Sometimes the truth hurts but it still has to be told.

  • Bob
    June 01, 2013 - 09:49

    "Heck, think about it in municipal terms:" When the mayor of CBS was brought to heel for the town's spending $120,000.00 running around the continent his response went something like: "If you want to get the word out you gotta travel". And he and his merry band not only did that, they're still doing it.

  • Wallace
    June 01, 2013 - 09:47

    One curious observation about the Provincial Govt s that they have 36 members, yet several have multiple titles/roles, is there not enough talent to go around. We are essentially run by King, Marshall, gerome & kathy, everyone else is along for the money

  • wtf
    June 01, 2013 - 07:22

    Governments and business are suppose to have the same goals - to improve the well being of their shareholders. The problem is that they behave the same way - the Board of Directors (or politicians) take care themselves first and become more brazen until the shareholders say Enough, and turf them out. Only to replace them with another lot that will behave the same way.