Vancouver (Toronto Star) – Canada’s new ambassador to China recently married the head of Asia Pacific operations for BlackRock, the world’s largest asset-management firm, raising concerns among former ambassadors and a democracy watchdog that Dominic Barton will encounter conflicts between his personal interests and public role.
The ambassador’s Sept. 4 appointment immediately drew questions from political commentators, who asked whether Barton — a veteran business leader whose posts included a seat on the advisory board for the state-run China Development Bank — is too connected to big corporations working in Asia to represent the full range of Canada’s interests. Others saw his business bona fides as strengths.
Barton married Geraldine Buckingham on Jan. 12, 2019 in Florida, according to public records in that state. Buckingham holds Australian citizenship and is qualified as a doctor in that country. As head of BlackRock’s Asia-Pacific operations, she is a key driver of the firm’s China investment strategy.
Chinese officials work aggressively to make foreign diplomats see things their way, said Jorge Guajardo, who served as Mexico’s ambassador in China from 2007 to 2013. He said Beijing could use the marriage as a point of leverage.
“I’d be surprised if Beijing was not aware of this, presumably thinking they could use it to their advantage. I’d be surprised if (Buckingham) doesn’t quit the position. There’s a clear conflict of interest,” he said.
Global Affairs said Barton was unavailable for an interview last week, and repeated attempts to contact him through other means were unsuccessful. Buckingham also has not responded to requests for comment.
A BlackRock representative told the Star that “Geraldine Buckingham and Dominic Barton lead separate and independent careers. Geraldine remains based in Hong Kong, and Dominic Barton is not involved in BlackRock’s business.
“BlackRock has strict policies and procedures in place to ensure our business is conducted in accordance with the highest standards.”
John Babcock, spokesperson for Global Affairs, declined to answer questions about the ambassador’s marriage, including whether the relationship is part of an ongoing ethics review that is standard practice for people holding public office.
The review will ensure Barton meets obligations under Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act, which outlines what public officials must do to “avoid real or apparent conflicts between their private lives and the function of their duties,” Babcock said.
The vetting includes declaring assets held by family members. There’s also a catch-all provision in the act that the ethics commissioner can demand any other information deemed necessary to ensure compliance.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to the vetting process when Barton’s appointment was announced earlier this month, saying that public servants are charged with ensuring “that no one serving Canada, representing Canada around the world has conflicts of interest.”
Freeland was, at the time, responding to questions about Barton’s previous work as global managing partner at McKinsey and Company. In 2015, the consulting firm agreed to advise a state-owned Chinese company that was building islands in the South China Sea as part of China’s play for sole ownership of the region. International rulings have struck down Beijing’s claims of ownership.
McKinsey’s dealings with the company were detailed in reporting by the New York Times last year.
Even the appearance of conflict could force Barton to bow out of many tasks as ambassador to China, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of independent watchdog Democracy Watch.
“I would think, based on how many clients (McKinsey and BlackRock) both have, that he would be in the appearance of a conflict of interest in so many decision-making processes that it’s really not possible for him to do the job,” he said.
Conacher offered a hypothetical example: Barton might be involved in a government decision that could harm or benefit one of BlackRock’s clients doing business in China.
Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, said people should press the government on how it will ensure no issues arise as a result of the marriage.
“Certainly, I see (the marriage) as a problem,” Saint-Jacques said. “I don’t think the Canadian government can force Ms. Buckingham to quit her job. If so, how do they handle the situation and what kind of firewall can they put in place?”
Chris Alexander, former immigration minister under Stephen Harper’s government who served as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said that as long as BlackRock isn’t doing a great deal of business with the Canadian government, Barton’s marriage shouldn’t be a problem, though it should be carefully examined.
“Let’s be honest. We need to be able to attract people into diplomacy whose spouses also have careers, sometimes very impressive ones as is the case here, so I wouldn’t throw anyone under the bus before this has been looked at carefully under the rules,” Alexander said.
Barton’s predecessor, John McCallum, left his role in the midst of a heated dispute between Beijing and Ottawa. Tensions mounted late last year over the arrest of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
At a Vancouver charity lunch in January, McCallum said it would be “great” if the United States abandoned its attempt to extradite Meng. He said such a deal would benefit Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked for his resignation that night.
By Jeremy Nuttall and Joanna Chiu