Conrad Black’s mission to trumpet Canada
All too often we compare ourselves with the economic behemoth to the south — a default position Pierre Trudeau memorably described as “sleeping with an elephant.” In Conrad Black’s densely packed new book, the former Canadian citizen and recently pardoned businessman gamely tries to shift the paradigm away from the United States by exploring a series of public policy areas, reframing Wilfrid Laurier’s famous declaration — that the twentieth century belongs to Canada — for a new century. By “advancing the art of government,” Black declares, Canada is poised to “help lead the advanced world to the next stage of its development.”
Remember that Black, born and raised in Canada, renounced his citizenship in 2001. While it might be said that Jean Chrétien forced his hand, it cannot be overlooked that Black went beyond the personal feud, branding Canada itself “an oppressive little world.” Fast-forward to 2019: the political system he chose over his original passport has descended into a farce, and he has had a patriotic change of heart, moaning that his once-discarded homeland is “benignly regarded in the world” and “rarely credited with anything beyond being a relatively gentle and democratic society.”
The Canadian Manifesto covers a lot of ground in an attempt to change all that. But it offers no case for why the author believes himself to be the fittest person to make the case that the world needs more Canada. Black’s ambition also falls disappointingly flat. The former press baron normally wields a unique and mellifluous writing style that can leave even the most well-read grasping for a dictionary. That is not the case with Manifesto.
The book begins with an auspicious recap of Canadian political history. As others have noted, Black is at his best when focused on powerful men (think Duplessis, Roosevelt, Nixon). Here he orients our national narrative around Macdonald, Laurier, and King, whom he casts as the primary movers of Canadian history for nearly a century. We are, he argues, inherently qualified to take “the lead in creative government.”
But Black then veers well off track. Instead of outlining the true stakes of taking the lead, he grumbles about pet grievances: his disdain for climate change politics, which he dismisses as “a radical environmental policy of the international left,” and his disregard for the “quagmire of political correctness.”
Eventually he stumbles into an exploration of nineteen policy prescriptions, but the disappointment only compounds. In person, Black is a first-rate raconteur. In his columns, his writing is playfully entertaining. Yet the meat of Manifesto is palpably boring, tiresomely rehashing well-trod ground — We need more doctors! Interprovincial trade barriers hold us back! — while offering few solutions or fresh ideas.
The Public Policy Forum recently published a white paper by Robert Asselin and Sean Speer, former advisers to Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively. A useful framework for considering Black’s ideas, A New North Star: Canadian Competitiveness in an Intangibles Economy groups policy prescriptions into three categories: Old Classics (e.g., tax, regulation, infrastructure), New Intangibles (e.g., intellectual property, data governance), and Sustainable Humans (e.g., human capital, work-based learning, skills training). Black has little to say about the latter two categories and instead focuses on the Old Classics, largely relitigating a return to a bygone era. Black’s prescriptions are premised on the view that Canada had, more or less, “sensible, prudent government” between 1984 and 2015. Curiously, he proceeds to kick out the legs of his own stool one by one: “The entire tax system is an outrage.” On schools, he laments that “we have been generating steadily less well-educated people at ever-increasing cost.” Our health care system is “a shambles.” And our justice system, held hostage by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and legislation from the bench, is “in a more parlous condition than the health-care system.” But Black’s worst sin is a structural misunderstanding of the modern economy.
On infrastructure, Black encourages public-private co-investment. He is particularly bullish on the auto sector and advocates direct federal intervention: “It is impossible to be a serious power in the world without partial ownership of a viable automotive industry.” For their part, Asselin and Speer want to leverage private capital through the Canada Infrastructure Bank, without favouring one industry over another. On corporate taxation, Asselin and Speer argue that Canada must not make knee-jerk changes simply to keep pace with American moves, especially as tax policy “must take into account fiscal circumstances as well as inherent technical and political challenges.” Black argues the opposite, placing disproportionate emphasis on rates, both corporate and personal, that align closely with those in the U.S.
That said, Black’s fixation on the Old Classics does produce a notable idea: implement tax reform at the central banking level, which would entail “stand-by tax adjustments on consumption and income to deal pre-emptively with inflation-related fears.” This novel proposal would exempt essential goods and could provide greater flexibility to a central bank that has little room left to operate its two traditional levers: interest rates and asset purchases.
Where Black is most distracted by his laundry list of grievances is precisely where we need him to patiently articulate his vision. He sets up a forceful case that Canada should not, in fact, make natural resource development more difficult, arguing that our resources are a unique value-add to the world. Furthermore, our white-collar industries exist downstream from the industry — with banks living off resource companies and legal, accounting, and consulting professions living off the banks. No mining, no Bay Street. But instead of building the case for how the extractives industry can ultimately drive forward tertiary sectors in the intangibles economy, he pivots to complaints about virtue signalling. Canada is simply guilty of economic “self-flagellation” at the altar of climate change politics.
Black is at his most obstinate where he dismisses policy experimentation that is already happening — instances that could bolster his central thesis if he would only oblige. At one point, he refers to universal basic income as nothing more than an “extravagant emotional laxative,” and he ignores the fact that Ontario’s cancelled UBI pilot program was well regarded around the world. On trade, he again returns to bugbears, accusing Ottawa of more virtue signalling by introducing environmental, labour, and gender considerations into last year’s NAFTA talks. But a few pages later, he wants us to demonstrate additional “moral strength,” which he never defines.
Black gives what should be a critical section on education a drive-by — teachers’ unions bad, merit-based pay and limited corporal punishment both good. On immigration, he claims we might simply “absorb parts of the West Indies” to up our population — which betrays a preoccupation with status and numbers and seems to undercut Canada’s supposed greatness.
Ultimately, The Canadian Manifesto fails to assemble a coherent set of bold ideas. Black succeeds in changing the frame of comparison away from the United States, but his meandering polemic fails to make the underlying case that “Canadians are annoyed and unsatisfied” with the “recognition and attention” the world pays us. We’re left wondering if Black is not simply projecting his own insecurities onto his former compatriots.