In early 2019, documents made public in a lawsuit brought by the state of Massachusetts against Purdue Pharma revealed the role the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. had played in advising the pharmaceutical company on how to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin and “counter the emotional messages of mothers” whose children had overdosed on the deadly opioid.
For several months afterward, details of McKinsey’s involvement in helping Purdue push back against attempts by authorities to get doctors and pharmacy chains to rein in OxyContin prescriptions continued to make headlines in The New York Times and other leading media.
The revelations regarding McKinsey’s relationship with Purdue added to a list of scandals that had damaged the consulting firm’s reputation during Dominic Barton’s nine-year tenure as its global managing partner. Just before details of the Massachusetts suit emerged, McKinsey came under scrutiny for its role in advising a South African firm accused of siphoning money from a state-owned utility. In 2018 McKinsey had also held a fancy retreat in China, replete with camels, near an internment camp for ethnic Uyghurs. The event underscored McKinsey’s ties to Chinese state-owned enterprises it worked for on Mr. Barton’s watch, but raised questions about its ambivalence toward the human-rights abuses of the Chinese government.
It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau considered, or was even aware of, any of these scandals when he appointed Mr. Barton as Canada’s ambassador to China in September, 2019. This image-driven Prime Minister’s Office is not known for its exhaustive vetting of potential candidates for high-profile positions before pressing send on press releases announcing their nomination. The lack of due diligence surrounding Julie Payette’s appointment as governor-general was just the latest example of the PMO’s dereliction of duty in this respect.
Mr. Barton, a self-described “bull on China,” got the ambassador’s job because of his Chinese networking skills, not in spite of them. The PMO naively expected he could win the release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, as if hardline Chinese authorities could be softened up by a North American consultant with a big Rolodex.
His “experience in Asia, and the significant global economics expertise he has acquired over an impressive career, will make him a great choice to represent Canada – and Canadian interests – in China,” Mr. Trudeau said in naming Mr. Barton to the post.
Since then, Mr. Barton has come under increasing pressure to answer for the McKinsey scandals that occurred while he led the firm. Under its current global managing partner, Kevin Sneader, McKinsey this month agreed to pay nearly US$600-million to 49 states and the District of Columbia in relation to its work for Purdue. The firm denied wrongdoing, but agreed to court-ordered restrictions on consulting work related to addictive narcotics and to upload thousands of documents tied to its work for Purdue into a publicly searchable database.
Mr. Barton responded publicly to the Purdue scandal for the first time this week, in a statement to The Globe and Mail. “As Global Managing Director, I was not in a position to oversee every client engagement and simply had no knowledge of the work undertaken for Purdue by my former colleagues,” he said, adding he “would have nothing further to say” on the matter.
His response falls sadly short of the transparency Canadians are owed by a representative of their own government. Mr. Barton did not specify whether he knew Purdue was a McKinsey client between 2009 and 2014, only that he had “no knowledge of the work” his firm did for the pharma giant. Yet, the global managing partner acts as McKinsey’s de facto chief executive, responsible for overseeing all operations and monitoring the performance of its partners.
It would be astonishing if Mr. Barton had not at least been aware of his firm’s relationship with Purdue, which had been fighting accusations that it played down the risks of OxyContin addiction almost since the drug came on the market in the late 1990s. By 2009, when McKinsey took on Purdue as a client, North America’s opioid epidemic was hardly a secret. Its consequences had for years been splashed over the pages of newspapers everywhere, as local communities grieved the deaths of the tens of thousands of lives lost annually to OxyContin overdoses.
In December, McKinsey issued this statement: “As we look back at our client service during the opioid crisis, we recognize that we did not adequately acknowledge the epidemic unfolding in our communities or the terrible impact of opioid abuse and addiction on millions of families across the country.” How is it possible that the top brass at McKinsey, including Mr. Barton, failed to grasp the seriousness of a public-health crisis as massive and mediatized as the opioid epidemic while their firm advised Purdue on how to sell more OxyContin?
Did anyone in the PMO think to ask that question?
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