Feds embed trade staff in defence, oil groups
OTTAWA — Canadian taxpayers have been paying to embed federal trade commissioners into business groups representing the country’s arms industry, petroleum firms, and automotive sector.
The arrangements, some of which go back to 2010, involve integrating the trade commissioners directly into industry association offices and incorporating them into their “regular operations,” according to an agreement template provided by the government.
The government and industry representatives say the setup provides a valuable link and better understanding between the two sides as Canadian businesses look for new opportunities amid increased competition abroad.
Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) spokesman Brett Bourdeau said the trade commissioner embedded in his organization has played a key role connecting Canadian defence companies to opportunities and contacts abroad.
“The official continues playing a key role in a number of ongoing initiatives,” Boudreau said, “including an upcoming mission of Canadian companies to NATO, and working with Canadian trade offices around the world to welcome foreign delegations at important Canadian defence and security trade shows.”
A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said the idea has been so successful that efforts are underway to expand the number of postings from four to between 25 and 30 in “priority sectors” as part of the federal government’s new trade strategy.
“Through close collaboration with Canadian companies, including association members, the department can better understand the challenges they face in doing business internationally,” spokeswoman Caitlin Workman said in an email.
In addition to CADSI, trade commissioners have already been posted to the Petroleum Services Association of Canada; the Venture Capital and Private Equity Association; and the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association.
But questions abound, including whether some distance isn’t preferable given many of these trade groups also lobby government on various issues.
The trade officials have been told not to pass themselves off as employees of the organizations with which they are working.
And both sides are to “make every effort” to avoid “real, potential or apparent” conflicts of interest, according to the agreement template, which also references the public service values and ethics code.
Boudreau said CADSI, which says about half of its members’ $12 billion in annual revenues comes from foreign sales, has in place “careful strictures” to protect against a potential conflict of interest or any other activity that would “undermine the neutrality of the public service.” And while former ambassador Paul Heinbecker noted trade commissioners don’t set policy, the agreement template says those working with the industry associations are expected to “provide advice and support as necessary” when it comes to such things as preparing briefing notes that could feed into the policy process.
NDP trade critic Don Davies said he supports the need for Canada’s trade commissioner service and helping Canadian companies succeed abroad, but “embedding them within a trade association makes that service a little more opaque.”
“It certainly is a concern. Whenever you embed anything and you take a government service and you bury it within a private sector organization, I think it’s reasonable to make sure that there is that reasonable expectation of objectivity.”
Liberal trade critic Marc Garneau said he supports the embedding of trade commissioners in industry associations, but added that the government and public service must remain mindful of potential conflicts of interest.
By the same token, “it’s important for the tail not to wag the dog,” he said. “Foreign policy must always dominate. It can’t be trade at any cost.”
Finance Minister of Saudi Arabia Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf, left, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The federal government is posting trade commissioners into oil, automotive and defence industry groups to help boost international deals