Making capitalism nicercan business be forced to be socially responsible?

Rating: NNNNNthere's nothing lefties love more than a good gab about politics, and they'll be in their glory this Friday.


Rating: NNNNN


there’s nothing lefties love more than a good gab about politics, and they’ll be in their glory this Friday and Saturday in Montreal as a much-anticipated conference on the future of Canadian social democracy unfolds at McGill.

One of the chairs of the conference organizing committee is Ed Broadbent, the leader of the federal NDP when for a brief moment in the 1980s it broke the 40-seat mark and seemed destined for official opposition status. It’s gone steadily downhill since, to the point where obits are being written for the party seen by many as a dusty memento of the far-gone past.

On the other hand, Canada has just witnessed one of the largest political protests in its history, as tens of thousands converged on Quebec City to throw a monkey wrench into plans for a too-business-friendly hemispheric free-trade pact.

What’s wrong with this picture?

This is the disconnect that the Montreal conference will explore, and there’s no one better to lead the discussion than Broadbent. Not only is he the most successful federal leader the NDP’s ever had, but he’s currently co-chair of a commission that’s investigating ways of taming the very nemesis of those who took to the streets last month — the modern corporation.

It is precisely the question of whether you think the corporation can be reformed that determines whether you’ll feel at home in the tent of social democracy.

A discussion paper released as Broadbent’s Corporate Accountability Commission began its cross-country hearings tries to sketch out how this daunting, some might say impossible, task might be taken on. Perhaps the most important issue is the law on “fiduciary responsibility,” which in this country has been taken to mean that members of a corporation’s board of directors may only take profits into account when deciding a course of action. If they keep a factory open only because it helps a small town survive, they may be breaking the law.

“Companies can rest comfortably behind the ambiguity (of the law) and say all they are obligated to do is maximize profit,” Broadbent says.

Of course, breaking the obsession with the bottom line is a tall order. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the commission has met with dismissive skepticism from business. A corporate rep who did appear was David Stewart Patterson of the Business Council on National Issues, who chides the commission for seeing corporations as being too big and too powerful and in need of stricter laws to rein them in.

“Someone dealing with these issues in a particular company might not have felt a degree of comfort in terms of the (commission’s) subject matter or how is this going to be a ueful exercise,” Stewart-Patterson tells NOW.

But it’s not only the corporate suits who don’t take his project seriously — it’s also the corporate critics who take on big business every chance they get.

Not that anyone thinks there’s anything wrong with Broadbent’s Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability Commission, appointed and funded by the Atkinson Foundation. It’s just that they fear it won’t amount to much.

What are the chances, the reasoning goes, that federal Liberals happy to cut trade agreements with the most repressive regimes in the world will risk the wrath of their corporate friends by tightening the Canadian regulations governing their behaviour? Answer: almost nil.

Even those who have bothered to appear before the Broadbent commission doubt that much will come of it, among them Duff Conacher of the Ottawa-based Democracy Watch, old hands at trying to get the federal Grits to treat consumers as well as they do corporate lobbyists. Conacher says the business elite don’t need to worry about Broadbent because they have ready access to government ministers.

“Corporations put their two cents in with the people who can give them what they want or take away something they don’t want.”

The way the executive director of environmental pressure group Greenpeace Canada sees it, corporations will only change the way they operate when you have them by the balls — also known as their share price. Peter Tabuns says he can’t remember whether he got an invite to Broadbent’s Toronto hearings, but he adds that he wouldn’t have gone even if he did.

“If I had gotten it, I would have said, “Is this core to what I do?” and it ain’t, so I’m going to roll on.”

Tabuns has just come off a successful campaign in which Greenpeace badmouthed papermaker MacMillan Bloedel far and wide for chopping down old-growth forest. When the adverse publicity cost MacBlo customers and its share price dipped, it saw the error of its ways.

The brass-knuckles approach is also what got results for activists who targeted the Daishowa company for logging on land in Alberta claimed by the Lubicon native band. After fast-food companies stopped buying Daishowa’s paper for bags and boxes, it decided to look elsewhere for trees.

Kevin Thomas, who was a leader in that campaign, appeared before the Broadbent commission on behalf of the Ethical Trading Action Group, which wants the government to require companies to disclose where the components of what they sell to Canadian consumers are made.

Thomas is glad the ex-NDP chief is on the case. If nothing else, he says, the commission’s report, due in September, will put on paper the changes in Canadian law that are required to make corporations answerable to the people, not just the bottom line.

But his expectations of the Broadbent commission’s results are low. “To get a corporation to do the right thing requires more than just nice suggestions. Sometimes you’ve got to give them a good ass-kicking, and I’m not sure this (Broadbent commission) is going to go in that direction.”

So how does the skepticism about his commission make Broadbent feel?

He sounds a little defensive when I suggest that protestors have been able to score victories without help from his commission or from the NDP.

“Oh, and what are those victories?” he asks sardonically.

Forcing multinationals such as Nike to improve conditions in the Third World sweatshops that sew the label on their high-priced goods, I answer.

Yes, protests are good, he concurs, especially the one that took place in Quebec a month ago. But where do they go from here? That’s the question that brings together his work on the commission and on this weekend’s conference.

“To say nothing can be done about (corporate reform) is to go off in a big funk and consign oneself to a life of protest,” Broadbent says.

Protest without a political program will not amount to anything, he says.

“Part of our objective (at this weekend’s conference) is to say what are some of the answers to these very legitimate questions being raised about corporate power domestically and internationally.”

glennw@nowtoronto.com

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *