David Mulroney, Canada’s Ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, is a distinguished senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Torontonians will naturally be focussing on local issues like transit and taxes and when they go to the polls in October. But we should also spend some time thinking about how the candidates stack up when it comes to municipal diplomacy, the ability to make smart connections for Toronto in the wider world.
This is increasingly important as the most successful cities become global actors, competing for investment, trade, tourism and education dollars. And in tackling problems like congestion, pollution and homelessness, it’s often easier to find kindred spirits and creative solutions in cities like Sydney, London or Seoul than at Queen’s Park or on Parliament Hill.
When I served in Beijing, I hosted visits from mayors like Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson and Waterloo’s Brenda Halloran. Mr. Robertson has the advantage of being related to Norman Bethune, which still opens doors in China. But he was admirably focussed on the future, making a strong case for Vancouver as a center for green technology and digital media. Ms. Halloran gravitated to technology centers in China, natural counterparts for Waterloo. She reinforced this connection by becoming the first Canadian mayor to launch an account on Sina weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Canadian mayors who cross the Pacific gain a huge advantage thanks to China’s penchant for reciprocity. Visiting mayors meet their local counterparts, no matter how many times bigger the Chinese city invariably is. And if the Canadian mayor is accompanied by a trade delegation, the travelling entrepreneurs get to meet the municipal officials responsible for their line of business, a connection that would otherwise be almost impossible for a small company.
There’s more to it than trade promotion. Mayors, at their best, provide a coherent and compelling narrative that helps foreign audiences understand a city as something more than the sum of its disconnected parts.
I didn’t see or hear much about Toronto during my time in China. While having a low profile may actually have been a good thing over the last couple of years, the steady decline of Toronto’s international brand pre-dates the Rob Ford era. Nor is Mr. Ford the only recent mayor to have brought the city international ridicule. Mel Lastman’s undiplomatic commentary in advance of a 2001 meeting of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa probably ended any chance of Toronto being awarded the 2008 games. When it comes to what we expect from a mayor in handling Toronto’s international interests, we need to set the bar higher than “will not embarrass us.”
Toronto taxpayers take a dim view of globetrotting politicians. While that frugality is creditable, it is a false economy for a city that is as globally connected as is Toronto. Our diversity and global links are hugely important assets, but they need to be encouraged, cultivated and promoted if they are to continue to contribute to our prosperity and quality of life. The competition for people, money and attention is fierce. Staying competitive inevitably involves travelling to the places that are powering global growth.
Part of the job is simply reminding people about how international Toronto already is. People in China are often surprised to discover that the largest segment of the Chinese diaspora in Canada resides in Toronto, not Vancouver. All too few are aware of the creative synergy that connects Toronto’s great universities with its cultural scene and with its business sector, or of the fact that each of these communities has deep and longstanding links with Asia. It takes a mayor to weave this narrative. As that story gets told, it becomes easier to understand why Toronto is such a vibrant and liveable city, why it’s an attractive destination for tourists, students and immigrants, and why it’s such a welcoming environment for knowledge workers.
And as important as it is to share that narrative with audiences in China or India, it’s also important here in Canada. The notion that Vancouver is our one and only city with important Asia-Pacific connections can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, something that in turn influences the flow of federal government investment in infrastructure and government funding for research, culture and trade promotion. Don’t get me wrong. We should do everything we can to support Vancouver’s international status and ambitions. But Canada can’t afford a partial engagement with a rising Asia. We can’t leave Toronto on the bench.
Of course, we won’t be able to convince people in China or India, or in Ottawa, of our Asia-Pacific credentials if we’re not convinced of them ourselves.
So in thinking about what it takes to lead us into the future, let’s add in the ability to understand, cultivate and communicate Toronto’s vocation as an international city, one with particularly strong connections to Asia. We need someone who can update our narrative, sharing with key international and domestic audiences the story of a city whose educational, cultural and business institutions are as globally connected as its highly diverse population.
In adding this to the core competencies we expect our next mayor to possess, we should also make it clear that we get it, too. Focussed and effective municipal diplomacy is simply part of the job for the mayor of a city like Toronto. We need to get back in the game.