It’s as if Premier Dalton McGuinty gave economist Don Drummond the province of Ontario tied up in a nice big bow.
In a career brimming with plum positions, Drummond calls this one his “dream job.” McGuinty put him in charge of a commission on the public service with the power to affect all our lives in Ontario with a series of recommendations to find ways to raise money, as well as pinpointing the inevitable cuts.
It recommends that Ontarians play slots at “alternative sites” to racetracks so they won’t have to hike out of town to play. Wine, beer and liquor prices would go up and stores would have “anti-zapper” software installed in cash registers to stop the practice of hiding sales from tax collectors by deleting selected sales.
More than 400 recommendations include consolidation of some ministries, overhaul of others and a major reorganization of medical services and how patients interact with health care providers, right down to the protocol for patients with congestive heart failure and the restoration of hospital privileges for physicians who have let them lapse.
Some procedures simply won’t be available, such as the arthroscopic knee surgery he wants removed from OHIP lists. (“No value,” he says; it just delays knee replacement for a year.) Fees paid to doctors for cataract surgery and radiology would come down because the time required has been slashed, but not compensation to physicians.
There’d be fewer Caesarean sections and hysterectomies. “The numbers are off the charts in Ontario,” says Drummond. “You’re not going to say to a doctor, please take less money, but that needs to be reflected in the fee schedule.”
The reporter asks whether these would be just guidelines for physicians. After all, the Ontario Medical Association is negotiating a four-year contract with the government.
“Oh,” he replies, “some of these would be orders.”
So who is this man, 58, plucked from semi-retirement to reign over the introduction of austerity in Ontario? He has the media wattage — Toronto Life called him “The Celebrity Economist” — and credibility where it matters. His nickname is Premier Drummond, but Darth Drummond might soon fit the bill.
Perhaps you’re thinking his will merely be recommendations. McGuinty recently stressed that it’s Drummond’s role to “advise” and his to “decide.” That’s true. McGuinty’s office has been floating trial balloons on this much anticipated report for weeks.
And it could well be that some controversial ideas — those slot machines, maybe — will go down in flames. But don’t bet on it.
Because this has been, above all, a textbook exercise in symbiosis between commissioner and premier. Drummond has kept McGuinty and his line ministers in the loop every step of the way, filing draft chapters as he went along and working closely with industry associations. It’s unlikely anybody — other than the public, perhaps — will be shocked. Certainly, there won’t be surprises for the senior levels of government.
“That’s exactly right,” says Drummond, when asked if the main players are completely in the loop.
“I’ve done reports on most of the (sections) . . . so it wouldn’t come as a shock . . . The reason the Ontario government picked me is they suspected I have ideas,” he says. “Let’s face it. After you’ve done a couple of decades of research you don’t often flip your views in a matter of six months.”
The premier telephoned him a week before the Mar. 29, 2011, budget to offer the job, and he accepted, knowing there’d be no secretariat for a few months and three commissioners would come later. It didn’t matter.
Throughout an election campaign with upbeat announcements — i.e, news flash, deficit wrestled down to $15 billion from $16 bullion — it seems clear that clanging warning bells on the economy were going to come.
Events suggest Drummond’s been a McGuinty favourite since at least the evening in early 2008, when the premier invited him to dinner at Grano, the midtown Italian restaurant that’s a favourite of Liberal political operatives. A handful of other economists were there to discuss the night’s centrepiece — the Drummond-led TD bank report, “Time for a Vision of Ontario’s Economy.” The title sums it up, as well as the focus for this project.
While working over the past year for the commission, he finished a previously assigned report for the C.D. Howe Institute, basically covering a lot of the same ground for the Toronto-based public policy think-tank. It telegraphed his thinking on health care and spending cuts. As well, this year, he’s been an adviser to the Ontario Medical Association and continued to teach at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.
His report — already in the premier’s office waiting for Drummond’s final signoff in a few days — goes far beyond expected cuts and covers sweeping recommendations that would consolidate ministries, overhaul others and change the health care system as we know it. His out-of-the-box thinking will be evident throughout.
He didn’t even ask McGuinty about his salary last March, and found out in a media interview that it’s $1,500 a day. His blood boils at suggestions he’s getting fat from the public trough, noting he hasn’t even charged for half of his work. His salary cap is $150,000.
Currently, he earns a pension from his 23 years in the federal finance ministry and 10 years with TD. (The bank also committed to paying three annual bonus payments after retirement, and he’s received two with one to go.)
“There are two good defined benefit plans in the country — banking and the civil service,” he says, “and I have one of each.”
But Drummond says it’s never been about money. He throws himself into work he loves — indeed obsesses over it, according to colleagues — and the remuneration has followed.
Drummond comes across as a natural leader. Height counts among masters of the universe and he’s 6’1” and 180 pounds. To say he’s in shape is an understatement. He’s a workout fanatic.
His energy comes from three times a week in the gym, frequent squash games and other exercise. For example, former chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who worked with Drummond in finance, says Drummond used to run up all 26 floors at Place Bell Canada in Ottawa. Sometimes two or three times a day. Sheikh still shakes his head.
Friends rib him about his fitness obsession. TD banker Derek Burleton played a lot of squash with Drummond and both worked out in the gym. He recounts how Drummond came back after a physical to report a good body mass index (body fat count). Joking, Burleton jumped in to brag his was five percentage points lower.
Drummond left the room. About six months later, after months of extra classes and grinding workouts with his trainer, he told Burleton he just couldn’t match him by getting rid of that extra five per cent.
“Are you kidding?” Burleton retorted. “Just look at me. I’m fat compared to you.”
With great glee recently, Drummond sent around a blurb from Inside Queen’s Park in which he’s described as “this determined economist with a remarkably strong jaw-line.”
Drummond sent the email to Burleton and other colleagues with the subject: “Let your jealousy rage!”
He’s had to be in shape for the work on this report. Drummond says his wife, Susane Latrémouille, chides him for working so hard, stuck in his study for hours on end. “But she doesn’t realize it’s fun for me. I tell her that all the time,” he says.
He feels great too, he says, since eschewing meat after his film student daughter, Julie, 24, showed him videos of the treatment of food animals; he’ll still eat fish.
“I don’t want to sound conceited but I don’t think there’s anybody who could have done what we’ve done as a commission in the time period we’ve done it in with as few resources, if somebody hadn’t done a lot of work beforehand,” says Drummond, referring to his many reports for the TD bank. He praises fellow commissioners, Laurentian University president Dominic Giroux, Susan Pigott, vice-president of communications and community development at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of business at Western. All contributed to various aspects of the work.
He’s going to have to stay in shape. It’s a good bet he’ll be out on the interview circuit over the next year explaining why austerity is the new black.
Everybody seems to like Don Drummond. Former colleagues at the federal finance department and the TD Bank rave about him. Says Burleton: “When Don came, the TD was a very sleepy place but he kick-started it. We see time as ‘Before Don’ and ‘After Don.’”
Drummond made TD reports relevant and highy anticipated. Instead of focusing on narrow parameters — forecasts on interest rates or the Canadian dollar — his perspective included an examination of social issues in Canada. At the University of Victoria, where he took his undergraduate degree in economics before taking an M.A. at Queen’s, he was influenced by his late professor Leonard Laudadio.
Head of the economics department, Laudadio would come to class with newspaper clippings and teach his students based on issues of the day, things that mattered to people.
Michael Wilson, finance minister in Conservative Brian Mulroney’s government, says “he’s a pretty broadly based guy. I noticed that right away. Very capable, good judgment and I always paid attention when he spoke.”
Adds Wilson: “He’s one of the most principled and imaginative public servants with whom I have every worked.”
Sheikh says Drummond “takes seconds to figure out an issue that takes other normal mortals weeks and months.”
Drummond was born in Victoria and remains close to his family. His father John Murray is deceased, but he flew out Friday to Kelowna to celebrate his mother Georgina’s 90th birthday. He tries to visit four times a year. He has one sister, Carol.
He grew up fishing with his father who (Drummond insists) never caught a fish, but loved to practise fly fishing. He played golf with him, too, and Drummond swears he “never lost a golf ball in his life.”
Chartered accountant Larry Ware became Drummond’s friend when they were 12, was best man at his wedding to Latrémouille and has stayed in touch. He describes a “serious-minded” man who studied hard, worked hard and lived every aspect of his life in moderation.
Perhaps that’s the most important thing to know about Drummond as we are about to be plunged into his vision of Ontario.
“I don’t want to get silly about saying that government should run like the private sector . . .” he begins, and one’s ears perk up to hear how he might mean exactly that. This could be a warning.
“I was always very clear at TD about what I was trying to do and what they expected of me,” he continues. “Here was the cost of my group and I knew that if you wanted to survive, I had to make more money for the bank than was the cost of my group. . . .There wasn’t a bit of ambiguity about my value to the bank.”
And he wants to bring that discipline to how the province does its business. After full evaluation of each program “if it’s not going well, it’s gone.”