British Columbia has yet to a name a trade commissioner to Asia nearly five months after former MLA Ben Stewart resigned from the post he got after stepping aside so Christy Clark could run in his riding.
Clark, defeated by the NDP’s David Eby during the May 2013 election in Point Grey, won a byelection after Stewart resigned his Westside-Kelowna seat.
Months later, he was appointed to a newly created $150,000-a-year post as B.C.’s special representative in Asia.
Some critics described the post as a patronage appointment and reward to Stewart for giving up his seat. They noted the province already had trade offices in the region.
Others questioned why a winemaker from the Okanagan was qualified for the job compared to those who could have been attracted if there had been an open competition to find the best candidate.
Clark denied the charges when she made the announcement in 2013.
“We need a representative in Asia who is known to have access to power and government here in British Columbia,” Clark said during an October 2013 press conference. “That is a critical part of doing business in Asia.”
Stewart’s job was to move on trade and investment leads generated by the government’s trade missions, she said.
The province needed “to have a high level official representative on the ground in Asia, who has the authority to influence and advance trade and investment priorities,” read a news release. Stewart would have a particular focus on LNG, the government said.
At the same press conference Stewart defended his suitability for the job.
“I felt that it was really important that we do expand trade,” Stewart said, touting his experience selling wine to Asia. “Part of that is because of the experience I’ve had both in Europe and in Asia in the wine industry and seeing how difficult it is to establish relationships from afar.”
The government’s press release touted support for Stewart’s appointment from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, former Canadian ambassador Christian Lapointe and even author John Ralston Saul.
But Stewart continued to attract criticism. In 2014, the New Democrats found Stewart had spent more time in British Columbia than at his Beijing office since the appointment. Stewart, who resigned Dec. 20, 2016, has yet to file his 2016 yearly report.
And almost five months after he quit, the job — described by Clark as “critical” to B.C.’s interests — is still vacant.
The government would not comment on plans for the post, citing the election.
Close the office
Financial advisor Andrew Johns says the smart thing would be to close the office. The post is expensive and provides no benefit, he says.
Johns dug into the costs of Stewart’s post and released a report in February.
He found that on top of the $150,000 salary, Stewart’s pension, living expenses and other benefits pushed the total employment costs to $342,900, before business expenses and money spent wining and dining people. That’s roughly $1 million over three years, he notes.
There is not enough to show for the money, he says.
“If you read through Ben Stewart’s reports, all it is is a series of meetings and glad-handing,” Johns told The Tyee. “In 2015/16 he participated in 13 trade events, he gave 19 speeches. What you don’t find in there is any correlation to a contract of any type where goods and services are being exchanged because Ben Stewart was involved.”
Johns said his review of the records found the cost of contract staff had gone from $1.2 million in the 2012 fiscal year to $2.9 million last year. The office has cost $8.4 million over the last three years, Johns found.
His report recommends closing the Beijing office and having a trade commissioner based in B.C. or at an existing Canadian Foreign Mission.
Trade figures don’t show success
Trade statistics also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the government’s efforts in Asia, according to an economics professor.
Keith Head of the UBC Sauder School of Business specializes in Asian business. He said that over the last few years, despite Stewart’s presence and trade missions, British Columbia’s trade with China has appeared to flatline.
Head said while on-the-ground relationships should be more effective, a study of trade missions conducted by the federal government under former prime minister Jean Chrétien revealed such missions don’t seem to make much of a difference.
That appears to include those run by the Clark government.
“The trade patterns during the period that she's been doing the missions, we don’t see any sharp increases with the countries she’s been visiting,” he said. “Just doing eyeball statistics, nothing is obvious there.”