Review: 1985 Again

High inflation, chronic deficits, shaky central bank leadership: This is 2022 but also 1985. The parallel is striking. Michael Wilson in posthumous memoirs recalls an unpleasant meeting with then-Governor Gerald Bouey of the Bank of Canada where he could not get straight answers to important questions.

“When he sensed my building frustration he finally answered one of my questions by saying to me, ‘I don’t know, Minister. What do you think?’” writes Wilson. “What did I think? I exploded in frustration. ‘Gerry,’ I said, ‘I have been waiting for more than twenty years to get the inside information on what you guys are thinking about the financial markets. I finally get to ask you what happens in this Black Box and now you ask me what I think?’ I came to understand that the Bank knew little more about financial market facts than bond traders.”

Something Within Me is timely and unnerving. Why do smart people go to Ottawa and fall to pieces? Wilson explains it unwittingly, as if the captain of the Hindenburg titled his memoirs How To Navigate An Electrical Storm.

Since 1970 Canada has had eleven finance ministers who could not balance a budget. Michael Wilson was one of them. As fellow Upper Canada College alumni Michael Ignatieff would put it, “We didn’t get it done.”

Wilson was an investment banker from Hamilton. “Many will assess my childhood as privileged,” he writes. One ancestor was vice president of Standard Chemical. Another was Lord Mayor of Liverpool.

His father was president of National Trust. Wilson hints at a conflicted relationship between the two. “At some point during many of my speeches I would see my father periodically slump over his knees, his head at his hands, as if groaning: ‘When will this ever end?’” he writes.

Wilson the private school boy took up ballroom dancing lessons – it was “the thing to do in social circles,” he explains – and joined a fraternity, Kappa Alpha. He scored in the 97th percentile on his Harvard Business entry exam and loved to golf in Scotland. “I was never interested in being poor,” he writes. “Who would be?”

He had a mania for fiscal prudence. Something Within Me invokes the flavour of Wilson’s speeches 37 years ago. “Living within our means represented the core of our approach,” writes Wilson. “The best medicine often has a bitter taste.” “It doesn’t take Economics 101 to grasp the most efficient way out of debt.” So writes the man who didn’t get it done.

Here is the timeliness of Wilson’s memoirs. Something Within Me makes it plain why Harvard Business came to Ottawa and failed: inertia, naïveté, lack of feral cunning or political awareness. Wilson betrays jarring analysis that is difficult to fathom. Even years after watching protests against his GST nearly destroy the Conservative Party he defends the tax in Biblical terms: “The Egyptians imposed taxes on cooking oil and other necessities as far back as 2000 BC.”

Wilson comes closest to a mea culpa on page 183. Politics is hard, he writes. “My background in finance and investment qualified me at least to some extent for the finance minister portfolio. But there was no way I could have brought similar levels of expertise on issues affected by decisions I made.”

“It never crossed my mind that I would be responsible for the impact of tariffs on mushroom growers or the challenge of determining taxation levels on software developers,” writes Wilson. “This proved a real stretch for someone with an introverted nature and a decidedly lower level of self-confidence than most born political leaders.”

Michael Wilson is gone. Inflation, deficits and an inept central Bank remain. His spirit marches on.

By Holly Doan

Something within Me: A Personal and Political Memoir, by Michael Wilson; University of Toronto Press; 352 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-44386; $24.95

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