07 June 2015

John Baird, Barrick Gold, and the corruption of democracy

In February, John Baird, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced his resignation from cabinet and as an MP. Within two months he was on Barrick Gold's international advisory board, the board of the CPR, and an international advisor to Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li. He is expected to receive $235,000 in compensation from the CPR. His expected salary at Barrick is unknown, but Barrik is very generous to former politicos. They have, for instance, taken very good care of Brian Mulroney since his retirement: he is believed to be still raking in over a million a year. With his new jobs, Baird may have have tripled the income he made as a federal minister.

If any group has to consider their future very carefully, it's politicians. Consider what recently happened in Alberta. An entire cabinet found itself suddenly and surprisingly out of office, most of them not just out of cabinet but out of the legislature—unemployed. Federal cabinet ministers may find themselves in the same position come October. Even a minister who is first rate at his job can overnight find himself on the street. When the private sector tactfully implies that if a minister is a good boy he will be rewarded lavishly with a permanent sinecure, how can he not be a good boy.

It's corrupt but it's discreet and perfectly legal. No need to accept large amounts of cash in envelopes in a hotel room. All you have to do is promote legislation amenable to corporate interests. Want an investor-state dispute settlement clause in a trade agreement?—no problem. And if the politician is challenged, he simply insists he's acting for the good of the country, and whose to say he doesn't genuinely believe it. One wonders if the current government's rush to sign trade agreements is less a concern about trade and more about maintaining a lavish pension scheme for cabinet ministers.

We like to think of Canada as a thoroughly democratic country, free of the corruption that plagues the developing world. But we fool ourselves. Our politicians, too, are often bought and paid for. We should not wonder why they sign trade agreements that favour the corporate interest over the public interest. They are uniquely vulnerable and corporations are masters at exploiting that vulnerability.

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