WILSON LEAVES HIS MARK AS ECO­NOMIC SU­PER­HERO FOR CANADA

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For­mer Fi­nance Min­is­ter Michael Wilson de­serves much of the credit for the fis­cal and eco­nomic suc­cess of Canada over the past three decades. Sadly, that credit of­ten gets over­looked and mis­placed.Wilson died on Sun­day from can­cer. He was 81.Wilson served in sev­eral port­fo­lios in the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments of Prime Min­is­ter Joe Clark’s short-lived mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment in 1979 and from 1984 to 1993 in Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney’s gov­ern­ment.Mul­roney says he spoke to Wilson a week ago and knew that his friend of many years did not have much longer to live.“He was a great friend,” said Mul­roney, who was reached in Florida Mon­day. “I told him how much I ad­mired him and loved him and that what he had done for Canada would live on for­ever.”When one looks at Wilson’s legacy, those words are not hy­per­bole. “The econ­omy of mod­ern Canada — much of it was laid by the vi­sion of Michael Wilson,” said Mul­roney.One of the first things the Mul­roney gov­ern­ment did upon com­ing to power in 1984 was to scrap the dis­as­trous Na­tional En­ergy Pro­gram brought in by for­mer Lib­eral prime min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau, which had led to eco­nomic dev­as­ta­tion for Al­berta and con­trib­uted to western alien­ation. Wilson also dis­man­tled the For­eign In­vest­ment Re­view Agency that hin­dered eco­nomic growth in Canada.Then, Wilson helped ne­go­ti­ate the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agree­ment. He also elim­i­nated the Man­u­fac­turer’s Sales Tax — a tax buried in the cost of Cana­dian prod­ucts, which there­fore in­hib­ited ex­ports by mak­ing them un­com­pet­i­tive with U.S. prod­ucts — and re­placed it with the nec­es­sary but hated Goods and Ser­vices Tax — an act of great po­lit­i­cal courage.Wilson was also the chief ne­go­tia­tor of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment; he ini­ti­ated the pri­va­ti­za­tion of Air Canada, and Petro-Canada along with al­most an­other two dozen com­pa­nies and agen­cies; and, he ran a fis­cally pru­dent gov­ern­ment with the low­est per capita spend­ing of any Cana­dian fed­eral gov­ern­ment in the mod­ern era.“The rea­son I rat­tle these off is they ac­tu­ally formed the ba­sis of the econ­omy of the new Canada. And every sin­gle one of those was ei­ther con­ceived in great part, ne­go­ti­ated and im­ple­mented by Michael Wilson,” said Mul­roney.“It’s very rare in his­tory that one man made such an ex­tra­or­di­nary con­tri­bu­tion that will res­onate loudly through his­tory — 50 or 100 years from now,” he added.Wilson not only turned Canada’s fis­cal ship around; he hauled a rust­ing, bro­ken econ­omy from the bot­tom of a fis­cal morass where the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment of Trudeau and John Turner had left it. Even Jean Chre­tien — who was a fi­nance min­is­ter un­der Pierre Trudeau — ad­mit­ted that fol­low­ing 15 years in of­fice, “We left the cup­board bare.”That’s an un­der­state­ment. By the time Trudeau and Turner were done, there was no cup­board.In 1984, the Tories in­her­ited a deficit of $38.5 bil­lion, which was nearly nine per cent of the GDP — the largest deficit in Cana­dian his­tory in terms of per­cent­age of GDP.The fed­eral debt had in­creased an un­con­scionable 1,100 per cent un­der the Trudeau ad­min­is­tra­tion. In­fla­tion was so great, in­ter­est rates peaked at 22.75 per cent. Pro­gram spend­ing un­der the Lib­er­als had sky­rock­eted to $1.23 for every dol­lar col­lected in taxes.By com­par­i­son, the fi­nan­cial legacy then-prime min­is­ter Chre­tien and his fi­nance min­is­ter Paul Martin in­her­ited from Wilson and Mul­roney in 1993 was a shiny, sleek ship sail­ing to a bright fu­ture.When Wilson and Mul­roney re­tired from of­fice, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had an op­er­at­ing sur­plus and the deficit as a per­cent­age of GDP had been re­duced by one-third, de­spite the world­wide re­ces­sion of 1990-91.Wilson slashed the rate of growth in pro­gram spend­ing 70 per cent — re­duc­ing pro­gram spend­ing to 97 cents for every dol­lar of rev­enues. Were it not for the cost of ser­vic­ing the enor­mous debt left by their pre­de­ces­sors, Wilson would have been run­ning sur­pluses.The prime rate went from 22.75 per cent to six per cent, the low­est in 20 years, and the in­fla­tion rate was 1.5 per cent, the low­est in 30 years.In 1991, af­ter seven years as fi­nance min­is­ter, Wilson be­came Min­is­ter of In­dus­try and Min­is­ter of In­ter­na­tional Trade to play a key role in ne­go­ti­at­ing NAFTA, that has been so vi­tal in en­sur­ing Canada’s eco­nomic suc­cess.Af­ter re­tir­ing from pol­i­tics, Wilson lost his son Cameron to sui­cide in 1995.At a time when few peo­ple spoke of de­pres­sion and sui­cide, Wilson ded­i­cated his skills and in­tel­lect to ad­vo­cate for men­tal health, even­tu­ally be­com­ing chair of the Men­tal Health Com­mis­sion of Canada and the Cen­tre for Ad­dic­tion and Men­tal Health.In Fe­bru­ary 2006, then prime min­is­ter Harper ap­pointed Wilson as Canada’s Am­bas­sador to the United States, where he quickly helped set­tle a fes­ter­ing soft­wood lum­ber dis­pute that had long plagued Chre­tien and Martin’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ments.He was named Chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto in July 2012, a role he kept un­til 2018.In a writ­ten state­ment, the U of T’s pres­i­dent, Meric Gertler, said Wilson was “great Cana­dian”.“He bore the ti­tle, ‘the Hon­ourable,’ by virtue of the pub­lic of­fices he held. But the de­scrip­tion came spon­ta­neously to all who had the good for­tune to know him” and his “com­pre­hen­sive ex­cel­lence, his unas­sum­ing gen­eros­ity and his quiet com­pas­sion.”On top of that, Wilson had a stel­lar busi­ness ca­reer. Mul­roney called Wilson was a true Re­nais­sance man.“I don’t know very many peo­ple who have this kind of a record, all the while be­ing a per­fect gen­tle­man and a great guy, ad­mired by ev­ery­body.”Mul­roney chuck­led as he re­called that his wife, Mila Mul­roney, al­ways thought Wilson looked like ac­tor Christo­pher Reeve’s ver­sion of Clark Kent — the al­ter ego of Su­per­man — “only bet­ter look­ing.”It’s an apt com­par­i­son. Al­ways some­what low key, Wilson may not have re­ceived the credit he de­serves for all that he’s done for Canada, but he truly was an eco­nomic su­per­hero.

Michael Wilson, left, served in key eco­nomic port­fo­lios dur­ing the Mul­roney years. “The econ­omy of mod­ern Canada — much of it was laid by the vi­sion of Michael Wilson,” says Mul­roney.

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