The federal Ethics Commissioner has been formally asked to investigate whether Canada’s former ambassador to Beijing, Dominic Barton, violated ethics rules when he accepted an offer to become chair of Rio Tinto, a global mining company that does much of its business in China.
Two New Democratic MPs wrote to the commissioner, Mario Dion, on Friday. Their letter says they believe Mr. Barton is in breach of the Conflict of Interest Act because he met with executives of Rio Tinto shortly before the end of his time as a diplomat.
The miner announced on Dec. 19, about 10 weeks after an October meeting with Mr. Barton, that it was hiring him. Mr. Barton had announced on Dec. 6 that he would leave his envoy post at the end of that month.
The letter notes that federal conflict-of-interest guidelines restrict the ability of former senior officials, such as Mr. Barton, to take jobs with companies with which they had “direct and significant official dealings” during their final 12 months of government work.
“The Conflict of Interest legislation is in place to protect Canadians from officials in positions of power unethically leveraging their public service to unfairly benefit themselves or their family, either financially or through greater influence and position,” NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson and Matthew Green, the party’s ethics critic, write in the letter.
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. The mining giant also extracts copper, gold, uranium and diamonds. Mr. Barton will begin as chair in May, 2022.
The Globe reported in December that Mr. Barton met with Rio Tinto representatives on Oct. 8, in his capacity as ambassador to China.
Rio Tinto spokesperson Matthew Klar said in December that the meeting did not involve a job offer to the ambassador, and that it was disclosed to the Ethics Commissioner, “who indicated that it would not impact Mr. Barton’s ability to accept the appointment” as chair.
The federal rules restricting post-government employment apply 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 federal cabinet ministers and ministers of state, the period is two years.
An official who breaks postgovernment-employment rules faces the possibility of being found in violation by the Ethics Commissioner, who can order current office holders not to have official dealings with that person.
“Given that Mr. Barton held a position within public office at a high level of responsibility and influence and, given that Mr. Barton met with Rio Tinto executives as recently as October 2021, it should be of concern to all Canadians that less than three months after meeting with the gold mining company, he announced his intention to become Chair of Rio Tinto’s Board of Directors,” the letter says.
Melanie Rushworth, a spokesperson for the Ethics Commissioner, said strict confidentiality rules prevent Mr. Dion from saying whether an examination has been initiated. The rules also prevent the office from discussing any aspects of the Barton case, she said.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said the question the Ethics Commissioner must answer is whether Mr. Barton had any significant dealings with Rio Tinto in the year before he left his post as ambassador. He said the Oct. 8 incident “looks untoward,” and that it’s incumbent the commissioner get to the bottom of the matter.
“If the commissioner concludes the ambassador had direct and significant dealings with Rio before he left office, that would be a violation of the conflict of interest guidelines,” Mr. Chong said.
In an interview Sunday, Ms. McPherson said she wants the commissioner to explain how Mr. Barton’s talks with Rio Tinto could not be deemed direct and significant, given that he ended up with a high-paying job as chair of the company’s board.
“The timing stinks,” Ms. McPherson said. “He had to be in that position talking to Rio Tinto about the possibility of taking over this role while he was still the ambassador to China.”
The NDP MP said it’s also significant that Mr. Barton had access to secret government information about China and will soon be working for a company that does more than half its business in that country.
“I just don’t understand how that cannot be deemed significant dealings,” she said.
If the commissioner chooses not to investigate, Ms. McPherson said, the NDP will likely pursue the matter before the House of Commons ethics committee. The party, she added, has not ruled out calling Mr. Barton to testify.
“If the Ethics Commissioner does decide that what was done is allowed, I think all Canadians recognize it is not right,” she said.
Before being named ambassador in September, 2019, Mr. Barton led McKinsey and Co. as the firm’s global managing partner. During his time at the helm, McKinsey advised Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as many companies doing business in China. Mr. Barton was previously McKinsey’s Asian chair, from 2004 to 2009.
As ambassador, Mr. Barton was a supporter of closer trade ties with Beijing, which he championed after the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese prisons. He has not tended to criticize China’s human-rights record.
During his time as head of McKinsey, Mr. Barton led the company through several controversies – including some related to China. McKinsey advised China Communications Construction, which built militarized islands in the South China Sea in violation of international law. The state-owned construction giant had been barred by the World Bank for bid-rigging in the Philippines.
In September, 2018, while he was global managing partner emeritus, the company held a retreat in the city of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang province, about six kilometres from an internment camp that held thousands of Muslim Uyghurs.
McKinsey’s work in China, including during Mr. Barton’s tenure, 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.
With a report from Reuters
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