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There are questions to ask about government contracting — but MPs don’t seem interested in asking them

MPs want to know how often Justin Trudeau and Dominic Barton hang out

A man is sitting; a cameraman stands behind him.

A cameraman records Dominic Barton as he waits to appear as a witness at the standing committee on government operations and estimates on Wednesday in Ottawa.

Photo: (The Canadian Press)


There are very real questions to be asked about the amount of money the federal government has been spending on the advice of private-sector consultants like McKinsey. But it's not clear that any federal party is actually interested in asking them.

So far, everyone seems far more interested in whether the prime minister and the former managing partner of McKinsey, Dominic Barton, can be described as friends. The answer to that question, despite claims to the contrary, seems to be no.

Spurred on by a series of stories that showed the value of the contracts awarded to the global firm has increased substantially in recent years, the House of Commons standing committee on government operations has launched a study aimed at federal government consulting contracts awarded to McKinsey & Company.

On Monday, as its second witness, the committee called on Amanda Clarke, an associate professor at Carleton University's school of public policy and administration.

It made perfect sense for the committee to call on Clarke. She has studied the issue of government contracting extensively — and she had some smart and interesting things to say on Monday.

This issue of spending a lot of money on management consultants and seeing a lot of core public service work done by management consultants is not an accident, she said.

It is the inevitable dynamic, she said, of a public service that has suffered from a lack of investment in talent and recruitment and reforming HR practices to make it easier to bring people in, coupled with unhelpful oversight and reporting burdens that follow from a kind of error-free 'gotcha' mentality and a lot of scrutiny.

The demands for error-free government make it very difficult to be creative and innovative in the public service.

There is a tremendous amount to chew on in that statement — about how government actually works, how we have come to view government and how both journalists and partisans frame the work of government. And there are parts of Clarke's answer that challenge both the Liberals (who have had more than seven years now to improve the public service) and the Conservatives (who eliminated thousands of positions in the public service while they were in power from 2006 to 2015).

A committee of curious and interested MPs could spend months unraveling the structural and cultural forces that have shaped the modern federal government and work out sensible proposals for change. And maybe someday, some group of MPs will get around to doing that.

But for now, this study is mostly about whether there is some kind of scandal here.

The friendship that doesn't seem to exist

The Conservatives have claimed that McKinsey's consultants constitute Liberal insiders — it's not yet clear that's the case, or that any kind of inappropriate political influence actually occurred. The Conservatives also have fastened on to the idea that Barton is a friend of Justin Trudeau.

In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs have variously described Barton as a good friend,a personal friend and a very close personal friend of the prime minister.

Who's actually running the show in Canada? Trudeau is the puppet and his Liberal pal Dominic Barton is busy pulling the strings, Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie tweeted on Monday.

WATCH | MPs question Barton about relationship with PM:

When Barton appeared before the committee on Wednesday, the quality of his relationship with Trudeau was the first item of the agenda. It appears they're not friends. Questioned by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, Barton stated that he and Trudeau have never exchanged Christmas cards, never had dinner together. Barton said he does not have the prime minister's personal phone number.

Barton chaired the Advisory Council on Economic Growth that was struck by then-finance minister Bill Morneau in 2016 and he was appointed Canada's ambassador to China in 2019. Nearly all of Barton's interactions with Trudeau apparently have been tied to those two appointments. And Barton reminded the committee that Stephen Harper appointed (new window) him to the federal government's Advisory Committee on the Public Service in 2013.

Barton told the committee he wasn't involved in signing contracts with the federal government when he was managing partner of McKinsey. He left the firm in 2019, when he was named ambassador, and sold all his shares in the company.

McKinsey's ethics and influence

The Conservatives and New Democrats are also concerned about the ethics of McKinsey's work with other clients – particularly as it relates to Purdue Pharma and the opioid addiction crisis in the United States (new window). But would the Conservatives or NDP ban McKinsey from receiving federal contracts? Neither party has yet said so.

Some have suggested that perhaps McKinsey, through Barton, had some undue influence on the Trudeau government's decision to increase Canada's immigration levels. It is true that the council on growth recommended increasing immigration (new window). But so did the Conference Board of Canada in its own report (new window) (which the growth council cited).

In 2017, Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders released a book that suggested Canada should aim to build a country of 100 million people (new window). And those were hardly the first voices to say Canada should welcome a lot more newcomers (new window).

A man makes a thumbs up.

Jason Kenney once acknowledged as immigration minister that he was under heavy pressure from the provinces to increase quotas for the provincial nominee program.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Larry MacDougal

In 2012, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney acknowledged he was under "huge pressure (new window)" from provinces to increase quotas for the provincial nominee program. That same year, Harper told a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (new window) that maintaining high levels of immigration to Canada would help to address the problems created by an aging population.

The bigger issue of government contracting

Concerns about the federal government's outsourcing of work and an increased reliance on management consultants are also not new. 

In 2011, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study (new window) – entitled The Shadow Public Service – that found personnel outsourcing costs had risen 79 per cent in the previous five years. That same year, it was revealed that the Harper government had signed a $19.8 million contract with Deloitte for advice on how to cut federal spending (new window).

In 2013, the Toronto Star reported (new window) that federal spending on professional services had risen by 28 per cent since the Conservatives came to office in 2006. 

As others have noted, while McKinsey's share of federal contracts has increased in recent years, other firms have been paid much more. But in the absence of a figure like Dominic Barton, interest in non-McKinsey contracts has so far been limited. (The government operations did launch a study into "outsourcing of contracts" (new window) last fall, but it only held three meetings on the subject over two months.)

At the end of Wednesday's meeting, NDP MP Gord Johns tabled a motion that would at least extend the committee's study to five other firms — Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture, KPMG and Ernst & Young. If MPs can also expand their vision beyond the hunt for scandal and outrage, they might end up doing some useful work.


Aaron Wherry (new window) · CBC News · Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.