THE CLAIRE FOSS JOURNAL


LORD BLACK'S IGNOBLE FALL FROM GRACE


LINDA MCQUAIG

Nov-2003

I recall being puzzled a few years ago reading an article by Conrad Black, in which he lamented the brain drain of talented Canadians leaving for the United States and Britain. The claim that we were losing our best and brightest to the U.S. was of course familiar.

But Britain? I hadn't heard of any big brains going in that direction.

Then I realized, of course, that he was thinking of himself and his wife.

The notion that Canada suffered some sort of damaging loss with the departure of Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, took on new irony last week.
For years, Black has been the larger-than-life personification of the excesses of a corporate tycoon, from his youthful power grab for control of Argus Corporation to his attempt to strip assets out of the Dominion Store employees' pension fund.

A couple of years ago, the nation was gripped by the drama of watching Black choose between his Canadian citizenship and a chance to sit in Britain's unelected chamber as a titled baron a perk he had relentlessly pursued.

Giving up the land of one's birth is enough to tear anyone apart, but, lined up against the chance to parade about in finery and be fawned over by people muttering "my lord" every few seconds, what's a guy to do? Black revealed the depth of his emotional anguish over the choice when he noted: "Citizenship of Canada is not now for me competitive with that of the United Kingdom."

But the Black saga took a far different turn last week with his dramatic departure as CEO of Hollinger International after an internal investigation found that Black, a company he controls, and a few close associates, received $32 million in unauthorized payments.

Black insisted last week that "what happened was essentially an inadvertency and in any case does not imply any impropriety on my part." (No doubt he'd be satisfied if, say, a clerk in the payroll department admitted to inadvertently receiving $32 million or even just $32 from the company's account.)

Black's financial dealings at Hollinger are now being investigated by securities officials in both Canada and the U.S., giving us what promises to be our first world-class corporate scandal.

Still, Black's more damaging contribution to Canada may actually be political. Using his ample resources to influence the public debate, particularly in setting up the National Post, Black provided a major forum for himself and others to express what amounted to a contempt for the Canadian way of doing things.

Black liked to ridicule the importance Canadians attach to programs like medicare, deriding the Canadian taste for equality and inclusiveness and insisting instead that "we must create a society more able to contain and reward its greatest talents."

To reward these talented people, we were urged to lower their taxes, let them run things, let them merge their financial houses, etc. Otherwise, we were told, they'd leave and we'd be left here all alone, barely able to figure out how to turn on the lights.

Canadians, Black argued, are jealous of greatness. Echoing this theme, economist Filip Palda argued in the Post that Canadians keep singing a "loser's lament," and that "overachievers" make "high school reunions such dreaded events" for us, presumably because we've all failed so badly that we fear running into once-normal high school chums who've blossomed into brain drain material or full-fledged British barons.

Another possibility is that we're not actually resentful; we'd just like the rich to pay their taxes so the country has enough revenue. It's a concept we call "sharing" when we describe it to children.

Black greatly amplified the already-thunderous voice of business.

When you hear that voice coming at you from all sides all the time, you start to wonder if there isn't something to it.

(Gosh, am I just a resentful loser? What more can I do to reward the great among us? Why does the Canadian tax system provide relief for the disabled and not the titled?)

Black has pushed the whole debate rightward.

With Black volubly denouncing mainstream positions from new ground on the far right, the public, believing there must be two sides to the story, begins to think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle on the near-right. Ralph Klein starts to look like a moderate.

Black's troubles may just be beginning. Some of his shareholders, like U.S. institutional investor Tweedy Browne Co., are apparently contemplating lawsuits in hopes of recovering fees of $74 million and management fees of more than $200 million.

Canadians, it seems, aren't the only ones jealous of greatness.

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Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator.