Don’t let the Tories’ PR disaster distract you from Doug Ford’s good idea

OPINION: The government has been accused of favouritism in its appointments of trade envoys. It might have picked the wrong people — but bringing these positions back is the right move
By Matt Gurney - Published on June 26, 2019
Doug Ford outside his office
Premier Doug Ford last week appointed the first trade envoys that the province has had since the 1990s. (Tijana Martin/CP)

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The tumultuous past few days at Queen’s Park have obscured an interesting story that should be getting more attention.

Let’s recap the big picture first: in a pretty astonishing series of events that began last Thursday, Premier Doug Ford’s chief of staff suddenly became his former chief of staff. Dean French, who’d been in that role since the beginning, had long been the subject of whispers by members of Ford’s caucus and cabinet. He was intensely disliked by many Progressive Conservative insiders; in recent weeks, their whispers became fodder for public discussion.

On Thursday, with his poll numbers looking catastrophic, Ford shuffled his cabinet in an obvious attempt to reset his government. Hours later — literally hours — Global News reported that two of the four people the government had just appointed to high-paying jobs as trade envoys for the province had close personal ties to French. One was a relative of his wife, another a friend of his son. A third such appointment was uncovered soon after.

It was a public-relations disaster for the government. What made it extra-embarrassing was that it stomped all over the Tories’ efforts to turn the page on their first year in office and get better about communications. French “resigned” on Friday, and the controversial appointments were revoked.

That’s the context. Now let’s get to the hidden story here. Permit me to quote briefly from a Canadian Press article by the intrepid Allison Jones, who reported on the appointment of the trade envoys: “Ontario Premier Doug Ford has appointed four people to positions abroad to drum up business in the province, including a former aide to his brother and a former president of the Progressive Conservative party. The four agents-general — positions that have not existed in Ontario’s government since the 1990s — will be based in London, Chicago, Dallas and New York City, and serve as the province’s primary international representatives there. They will be paid between $165,000 and $185,000.”

Wait a minute. Why haven’t these positions existed since the 1990s?

This particular set of appointments, obviously, was a total disaster for a government that was already reeling. No one can claim otherwise. Air-dropping buddies and relatives of an already disliked chief of staff into well-paying jobs is so bad an idea that I’m wondering whether my editor will cut this whole sentence for being redundant. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have trade envoys or agents-general or whatever we want to call them. We absolutely should have positions like this — indeed, we should have more of them. I hope that Ontario finds better candidates for the now-vacated positions and fills them immediately, and I further hope that the province hires more such agents-general and sends them all over the world.

There’s a funny thing about Canada. We like to talk up our love of multilateralism and boast that we punch above our weight as a middle power and go on about how the world needs more Canada and so forth. You’ve heard it all before. But Canada is actually dirt cheap when it comes to participation on the world’s stage. Our military is too small and is chronically starved for cash; we can barely provide even token forces to all the missions we’re theoretically committed to. Our foreign-aid budget consistently falls short of our stated targets. And, critically, Canada’s corps of diplomats is too small, spread too thin, and underfunded.

These are federal problems, of course. I’m not expecting the Ford government to go out and procure a fleet of fighter jets (though it probably couldn’t do any worse than the feds). But they speak to a chronic pan-Canadian problem: we are so enamoured with reports of our own high global regard that we don’t actually get out there and do the hard work of engaging with the world. We bask in the praise of the Dutch, who still remember their liberation by Canadian troops, yet we virtually ignore our military. We proudly recall Lester B. Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize but miss our foreign-aid targets. And we hope for a seat on the United Nations Security Council even as an alarming percentage of our diplomats are occupied entirely by trying to stay on good terms with Washington.

Canada (and Ontario) has interests abroad. We have good stories to tell and good products and services to offer. Too often, our business leaders are flying blind when they go into a foreign market. Talk to those who’ve had a Canadian official on the ground in their target market, however — one who knows and is connected to the local community — and you’ll hear about how much that helped. An invitation from a Canadian diplomat and a nice boardroom with some coffee and snacks laid out can serve as a massive ice-breaker for Canadians eager to do business abroad.

Canada should do more of this at the federal level. But Ontario can and should work on its own behalf wherever there’s business to be found. French screwed this up by turning what could have been a real competitive advantage for Ontario into a jobs-creation program for his nearest and dearest. We should fix that mistake — but not walk away from the idea itself.

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