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Our Grand Ayatollah

Tom d'Aquino rules Canada's fate. What does he want?

Murray Dobbin 12 Sep

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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d'Aquino: Building 'fortress North America.'

Does Canada, like Iran, have its very own Grand Ayatollah? Iran is technically a democracy with regular elections choosing a legislature and president. But it is well known that no major decisions get made without the express approval of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran, after all, is an Islamic republic and the final arbiter of the country's direction is the supreme Islamic ruler -- democracy or no democracy.

And if you examine the roots of the Security and Prosperity Partnership -- the secretive scheme to annex Canada to the U.S. -- you will find a similar pattern in which the really important decisions aren't decided in Parliament but behind closed doors. Those decisions are made not in collaboration with a religious figure but with the keeper of the Holy Grail of free market fundamentalism. That individual is Tom d'Aquino, the president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) formerly known as the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI).

If you think calling Mr. d'Aquino Canada's Ayatollah is mere hyperbole, consider the fact that not a single federal budget since the early 1980s has ever had its i's dotted or t's crossed without being vetted by the representative of the county's 150 most powerful corporate CEOs.

Bestowing blessings

We have come so far down the road of corporate domination of the public policy process that it is now simply taken for granted by both the Liberal and Conservative governments that Mr. d'Aquino will check out the budget and give it his blessing -- or instructions on how that blessing can be achieved. This is not to say that he always gets everything he wants. He just gets everything he wants most of the time. He was particularly annoyed, for example, during the Chretien years because Chretien refused to increase military spending.

But this perverse resistance on the part of the nominal, elected prime minister was an anomaly and the record of the de facto prime minister remains impressive indeed. If you've never heard of this process, or Tom d'Aquino, don't feel bad. It is not in his nature or in his interests to be a highly public figure. He is in the enviable position, from a politician's point of view, of never having to run for office or even be introduced to the Canadian public. He is chosen only by the 150 lesser Ayatollahs of the CCCE.

The thinking behind the original BCNI was pure genius. In effect, it established itself in the early 1980s as a parallel government. The research that went into its presentations was of much higher quality than previous business lobbying. The BCNI structured itself through a series of task forces working on separate policy areas, seconding staff from member corporations.

At its most sophisticated, the council actually presented the Trudeau government not just with policy papers, but with the actual wording of the legislation needed to implement that policy.

Mulroney's masters

The logic of the BCNI's approach reached its peak in the Mulroney years, when its draft legislation began to be adopted virtually word for word. And it is said that Mulroney, who proclaimed in the 1984 election that free trade would only occur over his dead body, was convinced otherwise in a 15 minute conversation with Tom d'Aquino on an Ottawa street.

Following the end of the Mulroney era, BCNI/CCCE control over federal government economic and social policy made an almost seamless transition into the Chretien/Martin government.

Martin's first budget was a confused affair -- a little bit of fiscal conservatism and a little bit of Keynsianism and increased social spending. It was much too confused for the BCNI's liking. D'Aquino and company put together a document for Martin called "A Ten Point Growth and Employment Strategy." Seeking to "reduce the overall burden of government in our lives," (italics added) the plan's neo-liberal orthodoxy was obvious in every point, including:

Targeting social programs to "those most in need." Cutting taxes and "doing more with less." Radically changing unemployment insurance rules so the program did not "act as a disincentive to work." Making "non-inflationary growth" a tenet of economic policy. Eliminating the deficit through social program cuts by 1998-9. And minimizing government to "create a more decentralized federation."

The BCNI's list of demands is a virtual summary of what Paul Martin accomplished, or tried to, in his nine years as finance minister. Martin rarely strayed from the Ayatollah's orthodox prescription and ran the most fundamentalist free market government in Canada in over 60 years.

More powerful than ever

Tom d'Aquino has run the organization since 1981 and his influence is arguably even greater today. While the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) finally broke through the wall of secrecy and media indifference at the Montebello summit, there was been little comment on its origins.

While the idea of greater economic integration with the U.S. was on the CCCE's agenda from the late '90s, the 9-11 attacks lit a fire under the process. The temporary closing of the U.S. border revealed just how risky the free trade/NAFTA strategy was. That strategy committed the country's largest corporate players -- that is, the BCNI members -- to exporting almost exclusively into the U.S. market. It was an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket strategy that 9-11 proved was highly problematic.

The idea of further trade liberalization was suddenly transformed into what its promoters first called "deep integration." The U.S. made it clear that security trumped trade and the CCCE got the message. Working with the business-funded think tanks and right wing foundations, the CCCE began a process of building elite consensus for the virtual absorption of Canada by the U.S. By 2004 the process had become more formalized with the creation of the Task Force on the Future of North America -- a small but very high-powered group (both Tory Michael Wilson and Liberal John Manley were members). It was co-chaired by d'Aquino.

'Tell us what we need to do'

The task force's purpose was to press the three NAFTA leaders to formally agree to their agenda of a fortress North America. And in 2005 that is what they did -- initialling the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. It was an exclusively executive agreement between the three leaders, committing them to the agenda but not requiring approval by the countries' legislative bodies.

Just in case there was any doubt that this was a corporate driven agenda, in 2006 the second summit in Cancun, Mexico, established the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC), which includes 35 of the most powerful CEOs from the three countries. The U.S. gets 15. NACC makes "recommendations" to the leaders. And the leaders are eager to listen. One of the U.S. members of NACC is Lockheed Martin executive Ron Covais who told Maclean's magazine: "The guidance from the ministers was, 'tell us what we need to do and we'll make it happen.'"

The NACC was there in Montebello, too, meeting along side the three leaders behind the barbed wire and thousands of police. There was one addition to the 35 corporate executives even though he is not officially part of the group. You guessed it. The Grand Ayatollah, Tom d'Aquino.

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