Dominic Barton, Canada’s outgoing ambassador to Beijing, met with Rio Tinto executives in October, two months before it was announced he would take over as chair of the Australian mining giant that does half its business with China.
Mr. Barton will leave his envoy post at the end of December and will take over as chair of the global miner on May 5. Before he became a diplomat in 2018, Mr. Barton built strong links to China while serving as chief executive of McKinsey and Co., a global management consulting firm.
Rio Tinto spokesperson Matthew Klar would not discuss the nature of the Oct. 8 meeting with Mr. Barton, which was registered with the office of the federal Lobbying Commissioner. He said the meeting did not involve a job offer to Mr. Barton.
“This meeting with Dominic Barton was in his capacity as ambassador,” Mr. Klar told The Globe and Mail. “We understand the meeting was disclosed to Canada’s Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who indicated that it would not impact Mr. Barton’s ability to accept the appointment.”
China accounts for more than half of Rio Tinto’s revenue, largely because of the country’s need for iron ore to fuel its massive steel manufacturing industry.
Federal conflict-of-interest guidelines restrict the ability of a former official, such as Mr. Barton, to take jobs with companies they dealt with during their final 12 months of government work.
The guidelines say: “No former reporting public office holder shall enter into a contract of service with, accept an appointment to a board of directors of, or accept an offer of employment with, an entity with which he or she had direct and significant official dealings during the period of one year immediately before his or her last day in office.”
The rule applies during a one-year “cooling-off” period following an official’s last day in office. After the year ends, they are free to accept job offers as a private citizen. For former ministers and ministers of state, the period is two years.
An official who breaks post-government-employment rules faces the possibility of being found in violation by the federal Ethics Commissioner, who can order current office holders not to have official dealings with that person.
The office of Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, citing privacy concerns, would not say whether Mr. Barton received ethics approval to join Rio Tinto.
But Jocelyne Brisebois, a spokesperson for the office, pointed out the rule only applies if someone had “direct and significant” dealings with a future employer.
NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson said she plans to write the Ethics Commissioner to ask for a review of Mr. Barton’s Rio Tinto appointment.
“It’s absolutely outrageous. It’s incredibly disappointing. Why do we have rules in place to protect the public interest if it doesn’t apply when you happen to be the Prime Minister’s friend?” she said. “If the rules for public office holders do not apply to those who are at the very highest level, like ambassadors, who does it apply to?”
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said he is also troubled that Mr. Barton appears to have received a pass from the Ethics Commissioner.
“This raises concerns and questions – that a senior public office holder, who has access to secret information, would so quickly be appointed to a senior corporate position because of the access to information and access to officials that they had as a representative of the government of Canada,” he said
Leo Housakos, acting Conservative leader in the Senate, said Mr. Barton is following in the footsteps of many members of the Canadian political elite who profit off their government relationships with China’s ruling Communist Party.
“We have seen a number of high-ranking officials in this country, including prime ministers and premiers and ministers, who have been receiving retainers and working on behalf of organizations and corporate interests that are more preoccupied with profit rather than human rights ... and holding the Chinese regime to account.” Mr. Housakos said.
David Mulroney, a former ambassador to China, said federal ethics guidelines are not a substitute for personal integrity.
“The problem with guidelines and regulations is that they can always be creatively reinterpreted,” he said. “The only way to get this right is to work a lot harder to ensure that the people we recruit or appoint are more committed to serving Canadians than to serving themselves.”
Global Affairs Canada did not respond to requests for comment on whether the department thought it appropriate for Mr. Barton to accept a prominent role with a major corporation doing business in China before he leaves his post as ambassador.
As ambassador, Mr. Barton has been a supporter of closer trade ties with Beijing. He has not tended to criticize China’s human-rights record.
During his time as head of McKinsey, he led the company through several controversies – including some related to China. In 2018, for example, the company held a retreat in China’s western Xinjiang region, just six kilometres from the location of what is believed to be an internment camp where members of the Uyghur ethnic minority are subjected to forced political indoctrination.
McKinsey’s work in China, including during Mr. Barton’s tenure from 2009 to 2018, has drawn scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been demanding that McKinsey share information about its work in China, and about how it prevents conflicts of interest between its consulting business for the U.S. government and its Chinese state-owned clients.
The U.S. House committee on oversight and reform is about to begin hearings into how McKinsey advised U.S.-based Purdue Pharma on ways to bolster sales of its drug OxyContin. Mr. Barton was leading McKinsey during the period when the firm was a key adviser to Purdue.
The New York Times has reported that, during Mr. Barton’s leadership, McKinsey discussed ways for Purdue to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin, including by paying Purdue’s distributors a rebate for every overdose attributable to pills they sold.
McKinsey has declined to say whether, as top managing partner, Mr. Barton was aware of the firm’s involvement with Purdue Pharma. McKinsey agreed to pay US$573-million earlier this year to settle allegations in 49 states that its work for opioid manufacturers contributed to the deadly addiction epidemic.
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