The Conservatives had so much there in front of them. All the opposition did. They were reviewing the growing mountain of government contracts issued to consultants, including $116-million and counting to the high-priced freelance business gurus of McKinsey & Co.
But what the MPs really wanted, especially the Conservative MPs, was to centre it on Dominic Barton, the silver-haired former global managing director of the McKinsey’s gargantuan consulting business, a Canadian who was recruited by the Liberals as a dollar-a-day adviser on economic growth, and later ambassador to China.
Mr. Barton is a wealthy, globe-trotting Master of the Universe, and when he appeared Wednesday before the Commons committee on government operations and estimates committee, the goal for Conservative MPs was making him the central character of this tale – a tale that would portray him as a close personal buddy of Justin Trudeau who used his personal connections to wangle contracts.
But they didn’t land their white whale. It’s too bad they don’t cast their nets wider, because there are plenty of fish in the sea of problems around government consulting contracts, including McKinsey’s.
Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie had rapid-fire questions about Mr. Barton’s relationship with Mr. Trudeau, but Mr. Barton told the committee that he didn’t recognize Mr. Trudeau when he first met him in an elevator in 2013 on his way to meet Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty – and he’s no friend now. Mr. Barton said he’s never been in a room alone with the PM, doesn’t support the Liberals, and never had any involvement with Canadian government.
There was disappointment in Ms. Kusie’s eyes.
You can see why the Conservatives would like the contracting story to be about the relationship between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Barton.
Mr. Barton is a picture of the global elite, and the firm he once led later spent US$600-million to settle U.S. lawsuits over the advice it gave drug companies on how to “turbocharge” opioid sales. The idea that the PM personally steered contracts to him is an opposition party’s dream. They focused on that idea.
But they didn’t elicit anything to make that case. Truth be told, much of the interrogation from MPs of all parties didn’t go anywhere. And the thing is, the opposition don’t need a McKinsey millionaire holding a smoking gun with Justin Trudeau to make the mountain of consulting contracts an ugly mess for the Liberals.
The growth of outsourcing, now $15-billion a year, is itself a measure of bloat. There are embarrassments like ArriveCan. Carleton University professor Amanda Clarke testified this week that the consulting and outsourcing explosion is a sign of deep problems in the public service, but McKinsey is just a small part. Broad government dysfunction should be worth a look.
And yes, MPs should also be looking at why McKinsey’s business with Ottawa grew so quickly between 2017 and 2022. They are a pricey firm, and there’s not a ton of public detail of what they did for all that money.
Although Mr. Barton was not a friend of Mr. Trudeau, he did tell the committee he was acquainted with Chrystia Freeland, now Deputy Prime Minister, before Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were in government.
He didn’t note that it was Gerald Butts, Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary from 2015 to 2019, who made efforts to lure him to a government post. Mr. Barton was recruited to the head the government’s advisory committee on economic growth, and was influential: One senior official privately joked he was the unofficial finance minister. Mr. Butts tried, and failed, to recruit Mr. Barton to be ambassador to China in 2016, but he took that post in 2019 after he left McKinsey.
Mr. Barton said there was no link between his government roles and McKinsey contracts. Even so, it is possible that some officials might have seen McKinsey as the in-crowd’s consultant. McKinsey partners in Canada, at least, appeared to think it might open doors.
Conservative MP Garnett Genuis brought forward a 2020 e-mail in which McKinsey Canada partner Kevin d’Entremont approached an official at Public Services and Procurement Canada to offer services along with the firm’s Canadian managing partner, Andrew Pickersgill – noting Mr. Pickersgill led the team that supported Mr. Barton on the government’s growth council.
Still, that’s not the white whale the Conservatives were hoping to land. But if they look, opposition MPs will still find a whole sea of real problems in all those consulting contracts.