Hub Interview

Veteran Ottawa advisor Charles McMillan on the need for more action and less consultation in government

Visitors to Parliament Hill take in the Centennial Flame in front of Centre Block’s Peace Tower, in Ottawa, on Friday, June 17, 2022. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Charles McMillan, a professor in the Schulich Business School at York University and former senior adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, about his must-read 2022 book, The Age of Consequence: Ordeals of Public Policy in Canada.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Charles McMillan, a professor in the Schulich Business School at York University, and a former senior advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. He’s the author of the must-read 2022 book, The Age of Consequence: Ordeals of Public Policy in Canada, which provides an insider’s account of the big changes in Canada’s policy and political landscape over the past 50 years.

I’m grateful to speak with him about some of those changes, the trade-offs between big bang and incremental reform, and his proudest policy accomplishments and biggest regrets. Charley, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Thank you. Great pleasure to be with you.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a basic question. At this point in your career, what led you to write this book, and what do you think its key messages are, particularly for younger readers thinking about a future in the worlds of policy or politics?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Having taught in different business schools around the world, from Japan to Poland, to France, and Britain, I’m a great believer in policy analysis, which has an economic bearing, but too many economists downplay the political pressures, the institutional pressures, and in the last 50 years, the international pressures. We see this today, for example, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

If you want to invest more, as the government is trying to do in dental care or in medical issues as a result of a pandemic or in defence, there’s only so much money, and there obviously has to be trade-offs. In Ottawa, which almost acts as a referee, you have the trade-offs with the provinces. So if you want more spending on Medicare and on medical issues, it’s easy to say “More money from Ottawa,” but there are trade-offs, and there are trade-offs for the provinces as well.

So it’s this study of trade-offs, and the kinds of people that have the understanding and the mindset to realize that a candy today has consequences tomorrow, more cavities, or whatever. If you trace the various prime ministers, they struggled with these incredible trade-offs, some better than others. I rate the prime ministers, but that’s not the point of the story.

The point of the story is the book is really about public policy, but sometimes you have historical consequences. We live as a country in the sandwich between two nuclear superpowers, the Soviets to the North, now Russia, and the Americans to the South, and both countries are not always right. We’re caught in the middle.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, there’s so much there, and we’ll come to some of those observations including the role of trade-offs when it comes to policymaking. Before I get there, I want to understand a bit more about the research and writing process. Charley, I’m struck that the book includes extraordinary details about the structure of Brian Mulroney’s prime minister’s office, briefing memos that you produced, meetings you attended, et cetera. Can you talk a bit about what went into ultimately producing this book? What materials did you draw from to reproduce such a clear window into what is a truly remarkable period of Canadian policymaking?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: I have two particular advantages. I come from an educated family in Prince Edward Island. My father was a gold medalist at McGill and intimately involved with CMA, the Canadian Medical Association, at the introduction of Medicare. I met all these famous people—including Chief Justice Hale, Paul Martin Sr., who was the health minister in the Pearson government and who came to our house—so I was always interested in less the personalities and more of the trade-offs and the complications of policy. Brian Mulroney failed in his campaign leadership run in ’76, but it was surprising to him that he had another run in ’83. But immediately after becoming leader, he wanted to focus on policy and quietly knew that if you get into government, you need two terms. He wasn’t a one-term guy. To make policy, he wanted to organize a policy unit, which involved civil servants, outsiders, and folks in the policy unit. This was independent of the free trade debates, which came later, and all that.

His concern was that it’s one thing to campaign and win elections, but when you’re in government, you’ve got to make serious decisions. The recent example is of the chaos in Britain—throw in Brexit too, but whatever—of various leaders literally not really understanding how to govern. Liz Truss being an extreme case, and her budget was laughable. The markets were going to have a real effect on the pound the next day.

Brian Mulroney had a long-term view like Pierre Trudeau, who—from all his writings, you knew what his priorities would be when he got into government, and the economy wasn’t one of them. It was the separatist threat, the Bill of Rights, and he explained that. I quote a famous Maclean’s magazine article where he laid it all out. When he retired, so-called, when Joe Clark became prime minister, the obituaries of his time in office weren’t great. When he won the election in 1980—not really by campaigning but his was a popular government so the Liberals kept him 30,000 feet in the air—he had three priorities, but those three priorities showed the trade-offs: the repatriation of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and various other measures; the trade-offs with women, with Aboriginals, whatever; and the agreement to get Britain and the House of Commons to pass a bill because the old Constitution was a bill of the House of Commons in Britain.

It’s interesting, my history teacher at St. Dunstan’s, which is now UPEI, Father Bolger, his thesis at U of T was on the Charlottetown conference. He used to talk about John A.—after the Charlottetown conference they went to Quebec and passed the former resolutions—getting the different British colonies to accept what they agreed to. John A. couldn’t deviate at all. This was all done, by the way, at a famous house or castle in Britain. Of course, John A. was an attorney general, so he understood, as a lawyer, the constitutional issues in France, Germany, the United States, and Britain, and that led to a lot of his thinking about the nature of the Canadian Constitution. Pierre Trudeau, of course, by imposing a Bill of Rights in a parliamentary system was going to get the ire of Margaret Thatcher, because Britain doesn’t have a written constitution.

Now, the other factor, of course—both in opposition and in government, I wrote regular policy positions for the policy unit, which had a lot of help from civil servants, but I would write regular memos to the prime minister or the leader of the opposition then, and they were forward-looking. To think ahead of the day-to-day rat race of Ottawa. This was a huge advantage. I have six books of binders with all these memos. In fact, I came across by accident one yesterday. Even after I left Ottawa, I would write a yearly synopsis of the government around such issues as policy, party, special events, mostly international, that would have a bearing on Canada.

SEAN SPEER: You certainly bring a lot of that historical analysis and evidence to bear. It’s striking the level of detail that you outline, including who’s participating in different meetings, on different issues, at different periods of time. We’re only scratching the surface in this conversation, and I would strongly recommend listeners to read the book.

I want to move the conversation, Charley, to the Mulroney government’s policy agenda. Reading the book, I’m reminded how marked it was by a high level of ambition and a pretty low political risk tolerance when you think of free trade, the GST, constitutional reform, privatization, personal income tax flattening, et cetera, et cetera. Do you want to reflect on how the government thought about the small-p politics of such an ambitious agenda and how policymakers ought to think about the cost and benefits of different types of reforms, including their sequencing? Maybe to put it differently, what’s the case in your mind for a big-bang approach versus a more incremental one?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: The title of the book, The Age of Consequence, meant that Canada was forced to make dramatic changes. Forget free trade and forget GST. Those weren’t the issues for the election or in the mindset of Canadians or the civil service. What worried the civil service, and I think there’s bearing on that today but in the private sector, was the nature of competitiveness. Not just against the United States, but against Europe and, most notably at the time, Japan. We could always trail the United States by a margin, but as long as the United States and Canada were way ahead of the rebuilding of Europe and the rebuilding of Japan after the war, it didn’t matter.

It had an immigration effect, a demographic effect, because for every 100 immigrants we got we knew we were going to lose 20 that would stay in Canada for a year or two and then go to the United States. The auto industry is a prime example. The deterioration of management and the quality of cars in Detroit, which affects the biggest economy, Ontario, and the entry of Japanese exports and consumer acceptance of smaller cars, more fuel-efficient cars, quality cars, that all had a direct bearing. If you go through industry by industry, we saw that. Pulp and paper was the biggest export industry in Canada at the time.

Much later, the Financial Times wrote an article about the Canadian pulp and paper industry and said 67 plants are 50 years old or older, including in the home of the prime minister and in Shawinigan, the home of the Opposition leader. We just weren’t investing in the latest equipment. This was an all-purpose concern of the cabinet and different ministers and people like Don Mazankowski, who came from Western Canada, several people ministers in Quebec, Ontario, and even some of them in Atlantic Canada. John Crosbie knew that we had to make serious changes.

One of the things I’ll mention about the Mulroney cabinet, you mentioned the issues, but it was a powerful cabinet and most of the members of the cabinet didn’t have an academic background. There were practical people. Brian Mulroney worked for the Iron Ore Company of Canada, and iron ore is used to make steel with coke, and the steel industry in Canada, but in the United States as well, was deteriorating. The most famous, U.S. Steel, but also Stelco in Hamilton, went bankrupt because they weren’t producing the steel needed for certain products like cars. I can tell you stories about that, but what I’m saying is that Brian Mulroney and the cabinet understood the competitive agenda, and they brought in speakers.

The joke with Mr. Mulroney in Ottawa was that you can’t keep Brian off the phone and you couldn’t get Harper on the phone. When I would send memos to him, I knew damn well at night he’d be talking to his contacts around the world and checking on some of those things. It was a powerful cabinet and urban-rural. David Crombie, for example, and Barbara MacDougall in Toronto, or various ministers in Montreal, they knew the urban agenda and that big changes had to come.

The free trade thing and GST came later. That was the deep, deep protectionism in the United States. The prime minister and various cabinet ministers, including Jim Keller, who would meet members of congress, senators, and U.S. businessmen, all spoke about the deep-seated protectionism and what this would mean for Canada.

SEAN SPEER: Charley, you mentioned earlier the book’s title, The Age of Consequence. I want to take that up if that’s okay. The period you’re covering represents the beginning and then the full maturation of the post-Cold War era, the so-called Washington consensus, or perhaps the free market consensus, or even pejoratively the neoliberal consensus. That consensus seems to have broken down. I interpret the recent mix of populist politics, including Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as the expression of an ideational transition.

First of all, what do you think has led to the decline of the Washington consensus, and is it justified in your view, and what’s your sense of what comes next? How should we think about the place of ideas in our current political moment?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: It’s funny you say that. The Age of Consequence comes from, in effect, what you call the decline of the Washington consensus or a policy consensus based on the Atlantic Ocean. Various people, including Norm McCray, the economist, wrote these fabulous surveys on the Pacific century. Before I went to Ottawa, I lived in Japan. I visited 50 companies like Canon and Site Pendocs and of course, Toyota and whatever. I could see for myself in the factories the changes. And I went to Korea, and I went to China. Mr. Mulroney, as president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, sold iron ore to China. He saw it for himself.

Today, though, it’s beyond the Washington Atlantic-based consensus. You think about defence as NATO, but it’s the Pacific Rim and now includes India. Don’t forget India and China by population represent 40 percent of the world’s people. India today, but also for the last 20 years, is the natural spokesman for what’s called the Global South, the poor countries. The reason the Doha Free Trade Round failed as one of the international agreements with the WTO, or its former name the GATT, was the dispute between India and the United States. What we’re faced with today is an extreme case of decoupling—people talking about decoupling Western economies from China, and China trying to have its own reserve currency deeply tied in with Africa, turning Africa into the low-cost labour factory of the world.

These are serious issues and they affect day-to-day stuff. I know there’s a lot of debate about food inflation and all that stuff. I do the shopping Sunday mornings and I noticed that some products are amazingly cheap, but two weeks later they’re very high. It’s not necessary for the products themselves. It’s the logistics of getting them there. If you like fresh orange juice, trust me, we don’t grow oranges in Canada. In the past, we’d get them from California or Mexico or Florida. Now oranges come from Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, Portugal. If you’re at Loblaws or Sobeys and you want fresh orange juice, that changes the mindset for these companies, but it adds to the complexity.

The international order roughly post-Expo 67 and the rise of the Pacific Rim led by Japan as the first non-white, successful economy—which is another factor—changed Ottawa and it changed the competencies companies and countries have to have to succeed, which affects the public policy process, boards, directors, senior management, as well as civil servants and politicians.

SEAN SPEER: You rightly point to the rise of China as a profound change in the era that your book covers. Let me ask you, Charley, at this point, how should Canadian policymakers think about China’s economic model and its geopolitical position? Is a policy of engagement still worth pursuing? Or is it time to rethink the upsides of economic integration relative to the downsides, including, of course, the potential for China to weaponize our economic dependence?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Well, what’s happened in China is really interesting, in the last seven or eight years. The country that China learned the most from was Japan. Basically, if you look at Southeast Asia, what Japan did, the other countries followed. A clever mix between government policy and successful private companies. What has happened under the president of China is the deep, deep centralization of power, not around a group in Beijing, but around one person. It’s like Stalin, and he used the weapons of government—including the KGB or the state agencies and the police because Stalin originally was a minister of the interior which controls the police—around one person.

China is too complex. In the old days, you could think of China as factions, like Japan in the ’30s with the army faction, the navy faction, the private sector faction, the military faction, or whatever. That’s all gone. Here’s the question. The extreme case of that is decoupling. I don’t think that’s possible, because there are too many global issues that China has to be engaged in. Climate change is the obvious one, but terrorism and various other things that affect China as well. Don’t forget the fear of China today is the opposite of the Soviet Union, the breakup with the Soviet Union. Central control despite economic burdens is the overwhelming political goal. That’s why a lot of the statements from Beijing blame the outsiders, blame the United States, but a lot of Chinese problems are problems created by themselves. We need really clever people engaged with the Australians, the Japanese, Southeast Asian countries, as well as NATO partners, to really monitor what the hell is happening. There is an example of the tradeoffs. In Canada in the civil service, all but 8 percent of our diplomats are located in Ottawa.

In my book, I explained the breakup of the Soviet Union—because I’ve been there with Monte Kwinter, a Liberal member of parliament because we were doing a study in Kyrgyzstan—the breakup of the Soviet Union happened on December 18th, two days after my daughter’s birthday, which I missed again. Then he called me Boxing Day, no “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” all that stuff. He writes, “Repeat exactly what you told me.” He couldn’t believe it. Gorbachev had called him and said the Russian flag would be over the Kremlin.

We need all the tools, and diplomacy in the international game is part of it. One of the problems in Canada today is that most small businesses don’t export and they don’t export internationally. Most of our exports outside the commodity game is only with the United States. In some industries, the United States are not the leader. The car industry is a perfect example of that.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned earlier, Charley, the tendency on the part of Mr. Mulroney to consult with different business leaders and opinion leaders and so on. I want to take up that subject. It seems to me the politics of the 1980s had a lot of upsides. It was an era when you could do that. You could pull together a relatively small group of people and get big things done. A criticism would be though that the process tended to be less inclusive and less representative. Our politics these days are more consultative and broadly engaged, but they’re arguably less efficient, slower, and inclined to pursue big reform. Talking about trade-offs, how should we think about that trade-off? Is there one between say, political efficiency and political representativeness? How do you think about the role of inclusion in explaining some of the changes that we’ve witnessed over the past, say, 10 or 15 years?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Well, that’s a really good question. Privately, I have what you might call McMillan’s Law: new governments consult when they should act, and they act when they should consult. Certain policies require consultation among different stakeholders. For example, I can tell you, we were upper eyeballs in ’84 with energy policy, with foreign investment policy. We had ministers and premiers like Peter Lougheed breathing down our neck. The good news, we had people in the prime minister’s office that knew Western Canada—Don Mazankowski, Joe Clark, Bill McKnight, et cetera. Pat Kearney came from Western Canada, and they knew the issues for Western Canada.

We prepared in Opposition a whole bunch of policy papers. We were prepared to act. It turns out the energy officials, the civil servants in the Atlantic Accord, which was Newfoundland, were stunned that it had issues about equalization. We had thought through this stuff collectively. For some issues you have to consult a lot. Tax policy is a good example of that. Trudeau made a terrible mistake with the rise of the small business sector, with John Bullock. At some point, you have to act and at other points, you have to consult. It’s up to the prime minister and his officials, including the civil service, to get an understanding of how much of each you have to do. I would argue that on too many issues, there’s too much consultation and not enough action. Action means you’ve got to make commitments, including budget commitments, and you fudge it. One of the things when you look at consultation, it’s stunning—I know CEOs who are ticked off at governments today, and at previous governments, because they have to put in a lot of time. It’s like an academic debate. At the day’s end, what do you do? You go for a beer. There are no conclusions. Consultation is an exercise and it’s really important, but in the end, you’re there to make policy and that means commitment.

Usually, that means budget commitment. But there are other factors, time, resources, people, or whatever. I think the current government and the previous government, they haven’t had the balance correctly. Mulroney won such a huge majority—that’s one thing you’re not talking about—and with MPs from all across Canada, every province, East, Western, and North or wherever. That provides a legitimacy for bold action. I used to say this to him, but I wrote that in a lot of memos or whatever, that bold action is often the low-risk option politically and in other ways.


CHARLES MCMILLAN: Because one of the things I learned in Ottawa, is the government has a history of blue papers and green papers. In ’84 in Mike Wilson’s budget presentation, economic update or whatever, there were 18 policy papers for consultation. My brother was minister of tourism and some of the civil service said that PEI would never be a tourist destination and then the Japanese flooded into PEI because of Anne Green Gables and all that.

But housing, energy—one of the consultation papers people forget, but it’s in my book, was we had a consultation paper on free trade. The previous government had options, including sector free trade, which I thought was nonsense. But it came as a shock to the political class, including the media, that the private sector agreed to start free trade talks. Don’t forget, with Laurier in 1910 it was a private sector that wanted protectionism. You’re asking a really interesting question and it’s up to, particularly, the prime minister and his mindset, but also his advisors, to understand the balance between the need for consultation and the need for action.

SEAN SPEER: I want to talk a bit more on this subject though. Let me ask a related question. The provinces and Indigenous peoples loom large in the book. What do you think of the state of Canadian federalism? Based on your experience, do you think we need some sort of exercise to reconceptualize the national government’s role in policymaking and its relationship to other orders of government?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Look, I’m a conservative on these matters. I think we have a fabulous set of institutions: law and order, the courts, and police forces. But I would make some changes. For example, I think the RCMP should get out of the business of being a provincial police force because there are so many international issues that the mounties have to be engaged in. Don’t forget, the FBI has offices in 76 countries. People forget that. A reordering is always possible. We had debates internally with Gordon Robertson, who was the clerk of the council and who was really the author of separating trade from industry and putting it in foreign affairs.

That was an internal debate. I think there’s a case for a very powerful, strong as, they have in France, or meaty in Japan, for industry, which really involves products and services and trade promotion. Because the new issue is how do you get startups to get scale quickly? Even in the United States, these startups have to have an international dimension to get scale quickly. Quickly is the operative thing. In some areas, such as Aboriginal policy, we’ve ignored Aboriginal policy, and there’s a reason for that. Most people live in cities and they don’t see the issues upfront. I lived in Edmonton. In Western Canada, Aboriginal issues are a big issue. You see it. But you live in Toronto, you don’t see upfront on a day-to-day basis Aboriginal issues. It’s one of these examples where we’ve had policy denial. The good news is—and I give Justin Trudeau a lot of credit for separating the two ministries. David Crombie had the same role as Aboriginal minister of separating the two things, one into the treaty obligations and one of the service issues, because they’re related but different, and each is related to other areas.

I think we have a very adaptable system. I think it’s fabulous that Clearwater, one of the great Atlantic-based fishing companies, is now owned by an Aboriginal group. In Western Canada, there’s stunning progress in these areas, including working with the private sector. I think the Canadian federal system has amazing adaptability, but it takes leadership and it takes champions, and we need more champions.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to my next question. You’ve been less active in conservative politics for some time, but as we’ve been discussing and as the book outlines, you remain a key architect of one of the most successful conservative administrations in modern Canadian history. What would be your advice to Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party in the current economic and social context? What policy areas should they be prioritizing as they prepare for an eventual federal election?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: There are two points here. I always like these books on the decline of a party. You know, Peter Newman on the decline of the Liberal Party, and then Justin Trudeau wins the national election. You look at the Liberal Party in the provincial areas, they are very weak. The problem in Canada is it has a federal system in a very diverse country. Think of immigrants, and we’re now probably bringing in 500,000 new immigrants a year. We need a big tent party. Less on pure ideology because a lot of issues in government don’t fit into that neat Left-Right dimension. It’s more of a domestic versus international, and a mix of the two.

SEAN SPEER: Sorry to interrupt, Charley, but it comes back to an overarching theme of this conversation, which is one of trade-offs.

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Exactly. Any party in opposition today can learn one lesson from Brian Mulroney, and he gets the credit. You’ve got to be prepared. It’s one thing to be in opposition and oppose everything, but if you’re successful, you’re going to be in government and you have got to be prepared. You need policies that bear fruit. There are any number of issues facing all countries, including competitiveness.

If you look at sector by sector, I said a thing yesterday to a whole bunch of friends about technology tracking and where Canada fits in terms of China and other countries. That means that at some point the private sector has to do more R&D funding. It’s one thing for Ottawa to do it. The provinces don’t do very much. The issues are important and that takes timing, but it also takes—go back to consultation. We had meetings with Thatcher’s PMO, we had meetings with lawyers, businessmen, academics, media, retired media guys. That’s where the preparation comes in.

If you think question period and high polls are going to get you to win the leadership campaign, then you’re in preparation. Campaigns are interesting. Before Brian Mulroney took over, usually when you looked at national polls, Liberals and the Conservatives, Goldfarb for the Liberals, Allan Greg for the Conservatives, by the time the writ is dropped, by the time the election is called, whatever the polls say then, the 60 days or the 35 days of the writ, there’s no change. That’s no longer true.

Brian Mulroney in ’84 went into the election 14 points behind. Campaigning does make a difference. The free trade election, 1988, in the period we’re talking about, say, the last 50 years—John A. being the exception, and Laurier—the three great political campaigners were Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Justin Trudeau. Pierre Trudeau was not a great campaigner in 1980 with the fallen popular support of the Clark government.

The Liberal campaign team kept Pierre Trudeau flying 30,000 feet for the 35 or 40 days of the campaign. Of course, he was up against Stanfield in previous elections. Dalton Camp was right. Stanfield’s a son of a bitch to get elected, but if he gets elected, he’d be there forever. These personalities do affect campaigning.

SEAN SPEER: Well, let me check up that point because it’s something you mentioned earlier and I want to ask you. Brian Mulroney won back-to-back significant majorities. Do you think that’s possible in today’s politics? Or are there no longer enough swing voters to permit that kind of electoral mandate?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: When you talk to young people, whether they’re at lunch or going to a movie with a girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever, most of their life on a day-to-day basis has nothing to do with partisan politics. Whatever is the issue of the day in Ottawa, doesn’t matter to a row of beans outside Ottawa, and you fall into this trap. Most young people, including Aboriginals, including the young immigrants, what do they want?

Economic wellbeing, law and order—in the sense of less violent crime—and good education and good health care. But within that, there’s a huge policy mix. I think the current agreement with Ottawa and the provinces on health-care spending is a BandAid. It’s not going to solve the basic things because we have, whether we liked or not, a hospital-centered health-care system. 

When I grew up, dad started the Charlottetown clinic. It was a Protestant group, the Polyclinic in Charlottetown. If you were sick or you needed stitches or whatever, you went to the clinic, you didn’t go to a hospital. In Ontario, when people feel sick or whatever, they go to outpatients at a hospital. Hospitals by nature, because of the equipment, and the quality of doctors are really expensive items. You’re wasting time for a lot of these people.

If you and I get in a fight and you get some stitches or whatever on your arm, a nurse can take out the stitches. You don’t need a Ph.D. or a specialist to take out stitches. We have huge possibilities to make changes province by province, and we’ve got tons of talent in this field. Managing that whole system requires less ideology and less blame, and now we’re back to consultation. Fix the damn thing.

SEAN SPEER: Let me put a penultimate question to you. I exchanged with a mutual friend of ours in advance of today’s conversation, who described you as an iconoclast with views on a wide range of subjects. What are some examples of issues that you’ve come to think about differently since your time in Ottawa?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: I think the role of our neutral, unbiased civil service is one of the great inventions of the British parliamentary system. I would argue that the British parliamentary system is far more adaptive than the Republican congressional system in the United States. We don’t have now in Ottawa, in the civil service, but also in the private sector, the proper mix between the skillsets.

That’s why I was such a proponent of privatization. The idea that civil service can run Canadian National or a mining company in Saskatchewan or Air Canada, is crazy. I would go further. I think there are certain airports in Canada that should be privatized, including Toronto. One of the strengths of Brian Mulroney, he was a businessman and he knew the difference between strategy— you would say bold strategy, bold issues, bold approaches.

That’s what strategy is about, but there are also operations, the day-to-day thing. And I’ve talked to Liberals and I’ve talked to provincial people with the same issue. We set up in 1986, a cabinet committee and operations, chaired by Don Mazankowski who knew Ottawa really well, to deal with day-to-day issues. Why is there trouble getting a passport? Why is there a problem at the Toronto airport? Why are people waiting? Those are operational issues.

I don’t think I’ve changed my mind. I firmly believe that operations and strategy are linked, but they’re different fields and we don’t have a good mix in both in Canada and in Ottawa. The the private sector. Look at Boeing, all the operational issues at Boeing on safe planes. Look at this crazy thing with Norfolk Railway. Those are operational issues. When you start cutting things, you’re affecting safety.

Food is another example. When I worked at Canada Packers, there were PhDs in the Department of Agriculture and Health checking the quality of the machines and whatever, which are all stainless, looking for bacteria. They had the power to close the factory. This is operational and strategy. Governments and companies know these issues long term versus short term or whatever. I think I’m more pronounced in those kinds of issues than I was when I was in Ottawa.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer, Charley. I would just say in parenthesis the subject of state capacity, which broadly reflects some of your observations there, is a subject that we’ve been talking more and more about at The Hub. For me, one of the major takeaways from the pandemic is, notwithstanding the strength of our independent civil service and all the rest, that we’ve proven to have less state capacity than I think a lot of us took for granted. That’ll be something that policymakers need to think about moving forward. Not just good policies, but the capacity to actually execute against them.

CHARLES MCMILLAN: On that, by the way, I come from a medical family, my brother has a medical degree and they would agree 100 percent with that. There are certain things that the decision should be made in the hospital with the doctors and nurses and not by bureaucrats and certainly not by politicians. The evidence on the pandemic is that the more independent or nonpartisan, the better the popularity of the premiers.

SEAN SPEER: Final question. Looking back, what are you most proud of from your time in Ottawa? And do you have any regrets? Are there any files that got away from you or you might have handled differently or ultimately advised differently on?

CHARLES MCMILLAN: I enjoyed my time in Ottawa. It wasn’t a fun city.

SEAN SPEER: [laughs].

CHARLES MCMILLAN: It’s a city without humour. Trudeau’s guy from Quebec said the best thing about Ottawa was the train to Montreal. My view was the plane to Toronto. I don’t think there were a separation of files. A couple of areas. John Crosbie was like Mulroney, like Mazankowski, like several of the ministers, was a policy nut. He really enjoyed talking about policy. He set up ACOA. ACOA now is doing what it was supposed to do, which is very big in startups. He was also the minister of fisheries. The Department of Fisheries is a Ottawa-centered bureaucracy, but most of the fisheries are on the East Coast and the West Coast. I worked with John Crosbie to separate the department into three, an East Coast fisheries centered in Corner Brook or somewhere in Newfoundland, it didn’t matter.

Another somewhere in BC, Prince George or whatever, it did not need to be in Vancouver so that there’s a dispersion of talent. But then the regulatory stuff will be done in Ottawa. I think new ministers and existing ministers have to look at the machinery of government to deal with these strategic issues, but also the operational issues. Fisheries is a good example. I’ve written a lot of stuff about food. Canada has a possibility, because tof climate change or various other things, to be a food superpower. We can still be an energy superpower, see Harper’s speech in London. But there’s no follow-up. The way they manage the pipeline debate, and the politics of pipelines, is sinful. Four pipelines in the works and none of them were successful in Harper’s term of government.

This goes back to your issues of consultation, including with Aboriginals, but also action. I think the pipeline debate showed that action without consultation is extremely dangerous politically, but also in terms of actual outcome. One of the pipeline companies should have known better. They went into Montreal and had meetings with the mayor of Montreal and the council. Nobody from the pipeline company spoke French. Give me a break.

SEAN SPEER: [laughs].

CHARLES MCMILLAN: I don’t think it’s a question of looking back. I look forward. I travel the world and I’m just stunned by Canada’s reputation around the world, including with G7 countries. There’s something about us. We don’t blow our own horns. We go about whatever we have to do, we adjust, and we can build on that. That means, without taking away from the provinces, this is not an Ottawa-centered thing. We are a federal system, including with the territories of the North.

George Stalk and I at Boston Consulting Group did stuff for the Asian Pacific Foundation about the Northern Gateway because one of the great gateways is going to be the link between the Pacific Ocean and Alaska and Yukon across the Arctic to Europe, which has huge implications for companies in China, but also Korea and Japan and European countries trying to get their goods to Asia, which you can’t do by pipeline or by airplane. You’ve got to do it by ship. Maersk, from Denmark—you know how small Denmark is as a country and a population—but it has one of the world’s best shipping companies in Maersk. These guys are really interested in these topics and what Canada is doing, but we have to invest in this time, effort, and money independent of the defence issues.

SEAN SPEER: Well, there’s just a ton there, Charley, as there is in the book. It’s called The Age of Consequence: The Ordeals of Public Policy in Canada. Charles McMillan, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

CHARLES MCMILLAN: Great pleasure.

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