Federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion says Dominic Barton, Canada’s former ambassador to Beijing, did not violate ethics rules when he accepted an offer to chair Rio Tinto, a global mining company that does much of its business in China.
Two New Democratic MPs – Heather McPherson and Matthew Green – wrote to Mr. Dion earlier this month saying they believe Mr. Barton was in breach of the Conflict of Interest Act because he met with executives of Rio Tinto shortly before the end of his time as a diplomat.
The mining company announced on Dec. 19, about 10 weeks after an October meeting with Mr. Barton, that it was hiring him. Mr. Barton had announced on Dec. 6 that he would leave his envoy post at the end of 2021.
The NDP MPs’ letter pointed out that federal conflict-of-interest guidelines restrict the ability of former senior officials, such as Mr. Barton, to take jobs with companies with which they had “direct and significant official dealings” during their final 12 months of government.
However, the Ethics Commissioner has ruled that Mr. Barton’s meeting with Rio Tinto did not violate the rules and therefore there is no need to reopen the matter.
“Commissioner Dion is not launching an examination into Dominic Barton as he did not have direct and significant dealings with Rio Tinto while he was Canada’s ambassador in China,” spokesperson Melanie Rushworth said in a statement to The Globe and Mail Monday. “As such, no examination will be undertaken based upon Mr. Barton’s actions prior to accepting the position.”
However, Ms. Rushworth said Mr. Barton was reminded that he should not try to lobby the federal government during the one-year cooling-off period after an appointee’s last day in office.
An official who breaks the post-government employment rules faces the possibility of being found in violation by the Ethics Commissioner, who can order current office holders not to have official dealings with that person.
The Globe reported in December that Mr. Barton met with Rio Tinto representatives on Oct. 8 in his capacity as ambassador to China. Rio Tinto spokesperson Matthew Klar said in December that meeting did not involve a job offer to the ambassador, and that it was disclosed to the Ethics Commissioner.
Ms. McPherson, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, said she was disappointed that Mr. Dion is not investigating what she considers to be a serious conflict of interest.
“Canadians wouldn’t think this is okay. This doesn’t pass any sort of smell test. It doesn’t make people feel confident that the government is looking out for their own best interests,” she said in an interview Monday. “It’s just another example of the rotating door between business and government that is being used for the privileged and all those who are on the upper levels.”
Ms. McPherson said conflict-of-interest legislation needs to be upgraded to take into account situations such as Mr. Barton’s, which the NDP may pursue before the House of Commons ethics committee.
Before being named ambassador in September, 2019, Mr. Barton led McKinsey and Co. as the firm’s global managing partner. During his time at the helm, McKinsey advised Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as many companies doing business in China. Mr. Barton was previously McKinsey’s Asian chair, from 2004 to 2009.
As ambassador, Mr. Barton was a supporter of closer trade ties with Beijing, which he championed after the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese prisons. He has not tended to criticize China’s human-rights record.
During his time as head of McKinsey, Mr. Barton led the company through several controversies, including some related to China. McKinsey advised China Communications Construction, which built militarized islands in the South China Sea in violation of international law. The state-owned construction giant had been barred by the World Bank for bid-rigging in the Philippines.
In September, 2018, while he was global managing partner emeritus, the company held a retreat in the city of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, about six kilometres from an internment camp that held thousands of Muslim Uyghurs.
McKinsey’s work in China, including during Mr. Barton’s tenure, has drawn scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been demanding that McKinsey share information about its work in China, and about how it prevents conflicts of interest between its consulting business for the U.S. government and its Chinese state-owned clients.
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