Michael Chan has long been among the more enigmatic personalities around Queen’s Park.
Most provincial ministers seek out media attention; he seems indifferent if not disinclined toward it, and generally happy flying below the radar. But his fellow Liberals tend to insist he brings a lot to the table behind the scenes. So it is perhaps fitting that this summer, Mr. Chan was given the most ambiguous post in Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet – one seemingly important to the province’s economic ambitions, but causing considerable confusion among those supposed to work for and with him.
With most attention going toward Deb Matthews’s new job as Treasury Board President, and a few other high-profile moves, it mostly escaped notice that Mr. Chan was given dual responsibilities that have not been lumped together previously: Citizenship and Immigration, and International Trade.
To some extent, this unusual combination appears intended to keep a minister who has been a good soldier for the Liberals (particularly on the fundraising side) happy and engaged. Simply moving him back to Citizenship and Immigration, where he previously performed better than in his more recent posting as minister responsible for the Pan American Games, might have been a recipe for restlessness.
But his unusual combined role is also about trying to leverage what is perceived to be an underutilized resource: the strong ties between immigrant communities, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, and the countries from which they came.
It’s a goal that has been bandied about in provincial circles for ages, and in one sense, Mr. Chan seems well-suited to help meet it. Not only is he a force within the province’s Chinese-Canadian community, a significant chunk of which lives in the Markham riding he represents; he also has very strong business relationships in China itself, where he spends a lot of time even when his job doesn’t call for it. That’s only one of the diasporas he’s supposed to work with, though, and it’s not entirely clear he’s the best choice to work with the others. Brad Duguid, the affable and extroverted Economic Development Minister who would usually have full responsibility for trade, seems the more natural fit for an assignment largely about relationship-building.
At least, that’s what the assignment seems to be about. The bigger cause for concern about Mr. Chan’s appointment is that nobody – not the Premier who gave it to him, not the bureaucrats who might answer to him, and presumably not the minister himself – has much apparent idea beyond the notional of what it will entail.
There are conflicting accounts of whether Mr. Chan and Mr. Duguid will both be going on all the province’s major trade missions, and how they’re supposed to work together at home. Meanwhile, it remains ill-defined what his appointment means for the structure of the Economic Development ministry – notably whether its trade division will be broken off and placed under his watch. For the moment, senior bureaucrats here and trade representatives abroad are left guessing which minister they answer to.
As for what specific policies Mr. Chan is supposed to pursue, more than a month after appointing her new cabinet, Ms. Wynne has yet to send mandate letters to her ministers. That’s understandable given that she and her officials haven’t had much time to stop and think since the province’s June 12 election, and in some ministries it’s not a huge deal since the mandates are fairly self-evident. In this case, though, it adds to the confusion.
It may be that Mr. Chan will never get an especially clear mandate from his leader; that Ms. Wynne, with more urgent decisions to make about how to manage the province’s fiscal situation, will never get much beyond the symbolism that seemed to drive his appointment in the first place. If that’s the case, the job will be whatever Mr. Chan makes of it. In a system in which ministers are often too micromanaged, that might not be a bad thing. But considering the way he usually goes about his business, it could make him more mysterious than ever.