Drummond calls report 'culmination' of his career

Don Drummond says the report he has put together to advise the province on ways it could cut down on spending is a "culmination" of everything he's done in his career.
Don Drummond says the report he has put together to advise the province on ways it could cut down on spending is a culmination of everything he's done in his career. (Jovan Matic/CP)

Don Drummond has obsessed over every detail — consulting strangers in airport lounges, students in his classes and colleagues in the streets of Toronto — about his report on how Ontario can eliminate its deficit.

Spending much time in Toronto's island airport lounge, the former TD Bank chief economist, said he's used every spare moment to arrive at his list of 362 recommendations.

The long-awaited report he was hired to write by the Ontario Liberal government last year will be released Wednesday and is rumoured to be more than 700-pages long.

"I could never sit there in peace," Drummond said in an interview from the airport lounge in Ottawa.

"Sometimes there'd be people coming there for conventions — teachers, or whatever element they were — and I'd find myself in the midst of a group of like, 20 people and everybody had some piece of advice as to what we should do."

The document will give some sober advice to the Ontario government facing a $16 billion annual deficit — by far the biggest among the provinces.

Province faces hard choices

With a sluggish provincial economy, that red ink is a fiscal noose that will require hard choices on everything from health care and education spending to public sector job cuts and future taxes to balance the books.

Drummond, a key player in the federal finance department before he moved to TD, said working on the report was a "culmination of everything I've done in my professional career."

The so-called Drummond report is expected to recommend service cuts, among them being the elimination of full-day kindergarten.

Although some may appear harsh, Drummond said his aim was not to take money out of programs.

"First I looked at how something could operate more efficiently and then if it's running more efficiently how much money could you take out, as opposed to the other way around," he said.

Drummond said he's been surprised by not only the hype surrounding the report — the most for any commission he can remember in his 35-year career as an economist and public policy expert — but also the willingness of so many Ontarians to help.

Author sought advice from many sources

One of those random encounters was with longtime acquaintance James Milway, executive director at the University of Toronto's public policy think tank the Martin Prosperity Institute.

Milway recalls how Drummond saw him in a Toronto subway stairwell and stopped to ask his advice on an aspect of the report.

Milway said that's just how the pragmatic, but socially-conscious economist operates — with an openness to hearing an array of opinions that could change his mind.

"He's not a right wing ideologue, which is kind of what you'd expect in this type of thing — if you're looking to slash and burn government spending, you're going to get some kind of hard, tough right wing ideologue it kind of fits the scenario, but that's not him," Milway said.

Drummond is known by colleagues as an astute and unbiased leader who encourages people to investigate issues and come to their own conclusions, said TD's chief economist Craig Alexander, who worked under Drummond at the bank for a decade.

"The starting point isn't what the conclusion should be, the starting point is let's understand the issue, let's do analysis of it."

Drummond transformed TD's economics department into "a think tank at the bank" that took the unusual step of publishing reports on education, literacy and health care, Alexander said.

"If you actually look at Bay Street, no other economic shop does a significant amount of research on policy."

Drummond has transcended Bay Street, however, and has become something of an economic "rock star," who is approached on the subways and streets of Toronto, Alexander said.

"That's not a normal experience for an economist," he said.

Drummond prepared for criticism

Another thing that has shocked Drummond in the lead-up to the release of the austerity report is how it's "becoming so personalized."

But Drummond, a seasoned veteran at delivering staunch messages to the public, said he's unfazed by any potential reaction to the report, which he admits will be painful, but not as much as some have feared.

"There will be critics and the government itself won't accept all the recommendations,"he said.

"We're not recommending cutting welfare rates like they did in the mid-1990s, there's not that kind of gutting of the entitlements in certain segments, there's a lot of subsidies that are paid that we recommended stop being paid."

He dismisses the none-too-friendly nickname bestowed upon him in some circles — Ontario's austerity czar — as a misunderstanding of the nature of the commission.

"No one elected me when I wasn't looking, I didn't even run and I don't want to run," he said.

Drummond, who has been a visiting scholar at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University since he retired from TD in June 2010, said many of the graduate students he lectures have also volunteered their help for the project.

He recalls pondering in class whether the way Ontario negotiates with doctors is unique.

"The next thing I know I've got a report on how they do it in Germany, Israel, Japan," he said.

Track record of taking on new challenges

Drummond was born and raised in Victoria B.C., graduated from the University of Victoria, and received his MA in Economics from Queen's. He joined the federal Department of Finance in 1977.

During his 23-year career in the finance department, he worked his way through the ranks to become associate deputy minister, taking on important files and helping to prepare the federal budgets.

Upon hearing of Drummond's retirement from TD, Peter Harrison, a former finance colleague in the 1980s, now director of the School of Policy Studies at Queen's, asked Drummond to take a fellowship.

"He definitely is one of the smartest people I've ever met," Harrison said.

"His willingness to question everything and to come up with fundamental issues is really extraordinary."

Drummond, who taught a class in health care economics in the fall semester, is an inspiring teacher, in part because of his ability to link the theoretical to real world issues, Harrison said.

"You can imagine how energizing that is ... which is not to say that it's easy, he is an extremely challenging person, he won't accept any fluffing around."

Harrison said there are discussions to have Drummond to teach a course focused on the Ontario report in an upcoming semester. "I want to take it myself," he said.

Drummond, a 58-year-old fitness buff, doesn't appear to be easing any time soon into a retirement that has been in the works for the 12 years since he left the federal government for TD -- a role he thought would be "less onerous."

But he adds that his two greatest challenges — heading TD Economics and the commission he has called a "dream job" — have come after his so-called retirement — and he's not opposed to taking on new roles.

"I'm not completely detached and objective," he admits, however.

"Because I'm finding myself in a position where there's an unbelievable opportunity to actually implement the things I recommend."