GST architect Stanley Hartt remembered as ‘a guy who could handle crises with aplomb’

GST architect Stanley Hartt remembered as ‘a guy who could handle crises with aplomb’
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OTTAWA — Stanley Hartt’s crowning achievement might not win him a standing ovation from most Canadians. The GST doesn’t usually have that effect on people.

“It may not be one that he would celebrate in public without getting tomatoes thrown at him,” said Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. and chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney. But Hartt’s instrumental work in developing the new goods and services tax in the late 1980s was an achievement nonetheless, Burney said. “If you think it’s easy to pass a tax addition policy, as opposed to a tax cut policy, let me tell you — it ain’t easy.”

Hartt, who served as Mulroney’s chief of staff from 1989 to 1990, died of cancer on Wednesday in Toronto, aged 80.

Those who knew him, including Mulroney, say Hartt was creative and highly intelligent, able to debate policy at length, but also to listen and find common ground. “He was funny and entertaining, but also very loyal,” Mulroney said in an interview. “There were no corners on Stanley.”

He was also “a guy who could handle crises with aplomb,” Burney said — a useful skill for someone who helped Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives introduce a new tax and a controversial free trade agreement, all while the economy was in recession.

Born in Montreal in 1937, Hartt worked as a lawyer before joining the federal government. In 1985, he was appointed deputy minister of finance under then-finance minister Michael Wilson.

He had a really quite good small- p political sense

“The ideas sort of sparked out of him,” said David Dodge, who served as assistant deputy minister of finance under Hartt. “Eight of 10 of them were absolutely nutty. And you could convince him quite quickly that they were nutty. But two of the 10 were really interesting, and when followed up, really did move things forward.”

Dodge, too, pointed to tax reform as one of Hartt’s major contributions. “The issue was how to make it work, how to get the balance right, how to sell it,” he said. “He had a really quite good small-‘p’ political sense as to how to deal with people.”

After leaving Finance in 1988, Hartt rejoined Mulroney’s government as chief of staff the following year, replacing Burney. In his 2008 memoir, Mulroney wrote that Hartt made a “very considerable financial sacrifice” to take the position.

Mulroney and Hartt had met as young lawyers in Montreal years earlier. “Stanley was the smartest person I knew in all of Montreal — he had by far the best mind and was a bear for work, an extremely hard worker.”

During his time as deputy minister and chief of staff, Hartt was deeply involved with the major issues of the day: aside from the GST, there was the negotiation of the Meech Lake Accord and the creation of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, later superseded by NAFTA.

“You name it, he was involved in it,” Mulroney said, arguing that the files Hartt had a hand in “were the basis for the prosperity that Canada enjoys today.”

“Those were pretty heady times,” said Thomas d’Aquino, former chief executive of what is now the Business Council of Canada. The government was pushing for major, controversial changes, he said, “all difficult, all complex, all politically charged, all of them divisive, and you needed someone who had strong intellectual gifts, but also an ability to understand the practical sides of these issues. And I think (Hartt) was really one of the best that I’ve seen do it.”

Stanley Hartt in 2015. He continued to make himself heard on political issues long after returning to the private sector. Tyler Anderson/National Post

Mulroney said he knew the decision to introduce a free trade agreement and the GST would be “unpopular and painful,” particularly during a recession. “(Hartt) was one of those who stood with me,” he said. “He told me we’d pay a price for it, but it was 100 per cent the right thing to do.”

Former senator Marjory LeBreton, Hartt’s deputy chief of staff under Mulroney, said Hartt was unwavering on the GST. “It was an almost impossible political sell,” she said. “But Stanley basically was driven by what he felt was the right thing to do.”

Hartt was the kind of person who was able to weather a storm, said former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who served in Mulroney’s cabinet. Charest chaired the special House committee on the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, and said Hartt was a “reliable partner” for the prime minister during a turbulent time.

“I remember him as being a very steady hand, someone who had the respect of all those who worked for him,” Charest said.

After leaving the federal government, Hartt served as chairman of companies including Campeau Corp., Macquarie Capital Markets Canada Ltd. and Citigroup Global Markets Canada Inc. But he continued to make himself heard on political issues, right up until the last few months of his life.

In October, he weighed in on the media frenzy surrounding the NAFTA renegotiations for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s policy magazine, urging officials to take discussions “outside the glare of regular publicity.”

“The whole concept of negotiating in public is inimical to the kind of horse trading that has to go on between countries whose interests diverge,” he wrote.

Stanley basically was driven by what he felt was the right thing to do

Hartt wasn’t shy, either, about voicing his thoughts on the direction the Conservative Party has taken. New leader Andrew Scheer, he wrote in August, is a “presentable politician” — civil and reasonably bilingual.

“But, if the Tories were hoping to identify someone who could inspire crowds and lead masses… (Scheer) is not the guy,” he wrote. “It isn’t just that the victory wasn’t stirring. It leaves the public scratching their heads about what the party actually stands for.”

But Hartt was far from just a policy wonk. Those who knew him describe a man who was personable and approachable.

“He wasn’t out there seeking glory or seeking to be the guy who always led the parade,” said Dodge. “But he was very much present and very much a loyal servant of Mr. Mulroney.”

LeBreton remembers a man with a wicked sense of humour, “sharp as a tack,” who made his staff look forward to morning meetings.

“Generally I think anyone that encountered Stanley and had any dealings with him knew he was a top-tier person and a top-tier performer,” she said. “It’s a great loss, really, for the country.”
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