Tell me why Mark Machin had to resign.
Why, that’s easy, right? The now-departed chief executive officer at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board jumped the vaccination queue by jetting off to the United Arab Emirates and getting a COVID-19 shot.
Think about it. Doesn’t that mean you’re now one step closer to the front of the vaccination line? Mr. Machin did you a favour.
Sure, but the CPPIB boss breached government guidelines on avoiding non-essential international travel. Okay, the key word there is “guideline.” There’s no ban on travel. The same government suggests you should avoid driving fast on slippery roads, don’t smoke and stop at three beers in an evening for men, two for women. How many Canadians broke those guidelines over the weekend?
And please don’t argue Mr. Machin had to go because Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office was “disappointed” with his vaccine tourism, which the federal Liberals were willing to go on the record last Friday to communicate. The CPPIB is an independent, arm’s-length agency. If its board of directors believes in good governance – that’s the G in the ESG standards that CPPIB professes to embrace – then Ms. Freeland’s view is no more important than that of any other working Canadian.
Look, I do actually get it. We pride ourselves on our egalitarian society. If you’re running a taxpayer-funded organization, getting paid more than $5-million a year to look after nearly $500-billion of Canadians’ retirement savings, standards are high. Mr. Machin was expected to lead by example. The CPPIB board decided he failed to do so.
However, it speaks volumes about the state of the nation when a prominent business leader, employed by the government, opts to head to the Middle East for medical treatment. As does Mr. Machin being out of work within a day of his actions becoming public.
The concept of Canadians enjoying equal access to services was clearly a fiction, long before the pandemic. When it comes to universal health care, supposedly one of our defining characteristics as a nation, we all know that plenty of wealthy citizens tap private medical clinics for check-ups and treatments, avoiding lengthy waits. No one kicks up too much of a fuss because these folks also pay taxes that support local hospitals.
Now we face a global health crisis. Lockdowns are hugely disruptive, on the personal and economic level. Canada’s vaccine rollout is agonizingly slow. The Lowy Institute, in Australia, recently graded the effectiveness of pandemic responses in 98 countries. Canada ranked 61st, behind Belarus. (New Zealand was at the top of the chart, UAE was ranked 35th.)
Listen to CEOs across the country, and you hear strongly worded concerns that Canadian governments of all stripes have lost the ability to get things done. When it comes to health care, it’s clear that lessons from past pandemics were quickly forgotten.
Now governments are asking Canadians to wait, patiently, for COVID-19 vaccines, while death tolls rise and lockdowns continue. Is it any surprise a wealthy individual like Mr. Machin, who initially trained as a medical doctor, decided to tap the best available service?
In a note to former CPPIB colleagues, Mr. Machin cited “deeply personal” reasons for his actions. While he and the fund manager have declined to elaborate, the 54-year-old, British-born father of two has family outside Canada. Do you believe he’s the only CEO who has personal reasons to open their wallet to get to the front of the line?
Here are two takeaways from Mr. Machin’s really bad week. First, Canadians are increasingly frustrated with the government’s response to the pandemic. Those with the means to do so are starting to act in their own best interest. That’s further fraying the social contract that holds this country together. Second, a furious response awaits those seen as somehow breaking the public trust. Just ask the otherwise smart guy who just lost one of the best jobs in finance.
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