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Former China ambassador Barton grilled by MPs about McKinsey-brokered meeting

Dominic Barton waits to appear as a witness at the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, Wednesday, February 1, 2023 in Ottawa. Thursday, Barton testified concerning the role McKinsey & Company played in the establishment of the Canada Infrastructure Bank. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Dominic Barton waits to appear as a witness at the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, Wednesday, February 1, 2023 in Ottawa. Thursday, Barton testified concerning the role McKinsey & Company played in the establishment of the Canada Infrastructure Bank. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Dominic Barton, the former Canadian ambassador to China, faced a grilling by opposition members of Parliament Thursday over a meeting he had with the former chair of the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) that was arranged by employees of consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Testifying before the House of Commons transport, infrastructure and communities committee Thursday, Barton told MPs that he has been under an ethics directive not to communicate with McKinsey officials and played no role since 1996 in McKinsey getting contracts from the federal government, including the Canada Infrastructure Bank.

"I did participate in one meeting, relating to the CIB while I was ambassador," Barton told the committee.

"This was a meeting on June 23, 2020 that I joined as part of the strategic refresh project in 2020. My participation was requested by the chair of the CIB which was Michael Sabia at that time."

"I gave my perspective and context on the direction of the CIB," Barton said, adding he was not paid for the meeting.

Opposition MPs were quick to jump on that meeting, pointing out that he made no mention of it in previous testimony before the government operations and estimates committee (OGGO).

"We have testimony that you gave at OGGO and that was false indeed," said Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis.

"Because Mr. Sabia, the former chair of the CIB, testified here on Tuesday that you participated in a McKinsey seminar, that was led by McKinsey, while you were ambassador and you have now confirmed this information today."

Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus quoted from emails tabled with the government operations committee between employees of McKinsey and the Canada Infrastructure Bank suggesting participation in the meeting be limited so that "Dom" would be able to speak freely.

The emails also outline when Barton had time in his schedule for the call, Paul-Hus said.

"The people from McKinsey know your agenda, they know when you are available — don't take us for idiots," Paul-Hus said.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Barton said Sabia requested the meeting, that he didn't see the emails quoted by Paul-Hus and that he had no idea any McKinsey employees played any role in setting up the meeting. Barton said Sabia was starting a new role as chair of the CIB and as a former member of the advisory council, he thought it would be a good thing to do.

Barton said he has often talked with Sabia.

"Having a conversation with Michael Sabia in my role, I see as no issue whatsoever," he said.

Barton said he didn't report the call to the ethics commissioner because it was a call that Sabia had requested.

Barton said the recommendation to launch the Canada Infrastructure Bank came from the advisory council — not McKinsey.

But Barton's reassurance didn't convince Conservative MP Garnett Genuis.

"Mr. Barton is clearly lying to this committee," Genuis said. "We have the emails in black and white."

Genuis also questioned the relationship between McKinsey and the federal government.

"It seems that McKinsey was effectively able to infiltrate the government and shape decision making on many levels and benefit from that shaping of decision making. Mr. Barton's presence in and close relationship with the government allowed that to happen," Genuis said.

Committee probing consulting firm

The committee is looking at the role McKinsey played in the setting up of the CIB, which was established in 2017 to promote partnerships between the public and private sectors to fund infrastructure projects across Canada.

Opposition MPs have pointed to the role that Barton, a former executive with McKinsey, played in the creation of the bank, and contracts awarded to McKinsey and McKinsey employees hired at the bank to paint a picture of a cozy relationship between the international consulting company and the CIB.

The committee was also set Thursday to hear from Bill Morneau, who served as finance minister when the advisory council and the bank were established. While Morneau appeared by videoconference and began testifying, technical problems with the headset he was required to wear for interpretation meant his testimony had to be postponed.