Chamber chief wants better politics

When I arrived in Ottawa as a reporter in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at 23, Perrin Beatty was already an ancient 31.

He was by then a long-serving Progressive Conservative MP, elected at the ripe age of 22, and had served as the youngest cabinet minister in our history before Justin Trudeau's father reclaimed power.

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He was also, if I may betray a confidence latterly, a great source. He was the opposition critic in communications and culture, fields I was covering, and it would be no surprise years later with his studiousness that he was appointed CBC president.

If I reveal him as a source, though, it is important to be clearer: he wasn't the brown-envelope-providing, rumour-mongering, self-promoting source of Ottawa's garden variety.

He was, rather, a provider of relevant currency on what was happening behind the curtain. His motive, as far as I could ever tell, was to advance the discussion. That was it. As a new reporter, finding my way to the bus stop most days, he was a remarkable tour guide of the inner Parliament.

Unfailingly mannered, a teensy bit of a young fogey, so earnest he would stop you from swearing for a few hours after you had talked to him, Beatty made his way through politics to lead an association representing manufacturers and exporters, then in 2007 into the role as one of the country's most prominent speakers for business as president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

He is still there a dozen years later, quite a tenure among tumult, and in catching up in conversation with him in recent weeks, there is an unmistakable quality of concern now when he again advances the discussion. Upbeat is tempered with uncertainty.

Despite seemingly positive economic data - low unemployment and inflation, in particular - there is "uneasiness, a sense of fragility" in the business community, as he puts it, and a qualm that "some other countries are performing better."

He doesn't hear the necessary attention by our leaders on what kind of 21st-century workforce is needed, how the West Coast economy can be strengthened and what infrastructure is required to support our country's prosperity.

The single most important issue he sees as the election looms is "the question of Canada's role in the world," given that "the post-World War II world order has disappeared."

In our relationship with America, there has been "an attempt to do damage" to Canada in such sectors as softwood lumber, autos, aluminum and steel, and "we don't have the capacity to take for granted" the stability of our neighbourly ways.

In the case of China, the "very strained" relationship "has the potential of getting worse." He worries about the country's indifference to rule of law and he summarizes the fears of Canadian business leaders of capricious China as: "Are they safe?"

The times call for diversification of trading patterns, "and it's not simply a matter of good business. It's a matter of national security."

While Beatty has been a Tory, he doesn't spare criticism across party lines.

He bluntly argues neither Conservatives nor Liberals have a feasible plan on climate change that will meet our declared targets under the Paris accord, "and yet neither will be prepared to admit that" in the campaign to come.

Instead, the sanctimonious positions will be used "as a club" in an acrimonious campaign of neck-and-neck parties. Beatty is sanguine and conciliatory as a business leader: changes to mitigate climate change "will not come without cost, but there is an enormous cost of doing nothing, as well." What he seeks are effective measures that will not impede our competitiveness, and even though there are reasons to doubt him, it is a needle he thinks we can thread.

"The real challenge for us is to stop shouting at each other and actually have," as he advances, "a discussion."

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