BORN: Trail, British Columbia • 3 November 1940
If we are influential,” Tom d’Aquino says of the Business Council on National Issues that he leads, “it’s not because of who we are—it’s because of the power of our ideas. Is free trade a powerful idea ?
Yes, it is!… Is deregulation a powerful idea? Yes, it is! Is the desire to reduce the size of government a powerful idea? Yes, it is!” The BCNI represents 150 of Canada’s largest, richest corporations—the banks, the insurance companies, the richest multina¬ tionals, the mining giants—and it speaks for almost Si .5 trillion dollars in assets.
Not because of who we are? Fat chance.Smooth, polished, a consensus-builder of great skill, d’Aquino was not to the manor born. He emerged from modest origins in the mining interior of British Columbia to get a First-class education in Canada and abroad.
While still in his twenties, he worked for Pierre Trudeau as a special assistant, and in 1972 set up shop in Ottawa as a “strategic business consultant.” After a few years working for the legal powerhouse of McCarthy Tetrault, in 1981 he found his home as president of the BCNI and immediately set out to turn the little-known and largely ineffective organization around.
The BCNI, d’Aquino says, was created in 1976 “to develop constructive economic, social and interna¬ tional policies for the business community whether the government likes them or not.” Under his direction, the council intended to “reconstruct” the country: “We mean fundamental change in some of the attitudes, some of the structures and some of the laws that shape our lives.”
Trade had to be liberalized, business needed a level playing field so it could survive in the newly competitive global marketplace, and government had to be made to reduce its size and cease its interference with the aims of corporate Canada.
Using his highly developed networking skills, d’Aquino jollied his powerful CEOs along towards tough positions, derived through task forces that mirrored government departments and priorities, and generated reports that sometimes seemed to move directly into legislation.
The Trudeau Liberals were not wholly sympathetic to the BCNI agenda, but Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, aiming to remodel the country, responded quickly to d’Aquino’s lobbying. His first triumph came in 1985 when the Tories, proudly declaring Canada open for business, came out for a free trade agreement with the United States.
By 1988 the deal was in place, and, in the election that followed, d’Aquino spearheaded the Canadian Alliance for Trade and Job Opportunities that spent millions publicizing the benefits of the FTA and closer economic inte¬ gration with the United States. What’s in it for Canadians? an election advertisement written by d’Aquino asked.
“More jobs. Better jobs.” Mulroney, the FTA, and the BCNI won, but that powerful promise quickly turned hollow, as manufacturing decamped to the south and unemployment skyrocketed. Corporate profits, recessions notwithstanding, did well. A triumph indeed.
Next on the BCNI program was constitutional change.A smaller, weaker, decentralized government was a positive virtue, and Mulroney’s Meech Lake accord and the Charlottetown agreement were steps in the direction d’Aquino and the BCNI wanted Canada to take. Not perfect, Charlottetown was still “the best thing we’ve seen yet,” d’Aquino argued.
“It gives Canadians the opportunity to settle grievances and turn their attention to key issues such as the economy.” The people were unreceptive, however, defeating the Charlottetown agreement in a referendum. For the first time d’Aquino’s ambitions were checked, his amour-propre wounded by the personal attacks that were now coming his way.
Not for long. His next targets were Canadian social programs. To d’Aquino and the BCNI, Canada spent too much on social welfare, much more than the Americans.This made high taxes inevitable, and taxes drained away initiative and incentive. But how could Canadians be persuaded to accept the reduction of their cherished social benefits?
Orchestrated by d’Aquino and the BCNI, the media tom-toms soon began to beat insistently against the rising national debt and annual government deficits. Proving that one party was as useful as another, the Chretien Liberals responded by slashing budgets, reducing transfer payments, and cutting programs. Another triumph.
Unelected, almost unknown to the public, Tom d’Aquino more than merits the title conferred on him by journalist Murray Dobbin: “Canada’s defacto prime minister.” No other unelected person, Dobbin says, “has ever exercised the kind of influence on public policy in Canada that Thomas d’Aquino has.” Ofcourse, big business is entitled to organize itself in a democracy, every bit as much as the poor can.
The power, the resources, may be different, but the principle is the same. But if the policies of business fail, who is to be held accountable? Politicians who backed the wrong horse may fall, but Tom d’Aquino and his BCNI will simply seek a better runner for the next time.