Trudeau ministers hope Davos speed dating builds relationships

The World Economic Forum in Davos is a place of many meetings between the world's industrial and political elite, but it can often take a year or more before any business deals are announced.

Quebec's Philippe Couillard says Peugeot Citroën deal began at last year's World Economic Forum

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chats with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer during a bilateral meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Trudeau is attending the the World Economic Forum where political, business and social leaders gather to discuss world agendas. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Navdeep Bains, Canada's minister of innovation, science and economic development, met with reporters in Davos this afternoon and declared it to have so far been a "very productive" visit to the World Economic Forum.

But quantifying productivity in Davos is difficult.

In addition to chatting with Kevin Spacey and Bono on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first day included meetings with executives from Royal Dutch Shell, Facebook and Microsoft. His second day's agenda included so-called "bilaterals" with the president of the Swiss Confederation, as well as representatives of General Motors, Welspun (an Indian conglomerate), Novartis (a healthcare company) and Tata (another Indian conglomerate). Bains himself met with General Motors and Tata, but also Ericsson and Siemens.

In the case of the prime minister, each meeting is preceded by a photo opportunity and a quick exchange of small talk, establishing at the very least that something is occurring during this trip to the Swiss Alps.

That Trudeau and Bains had met with Mary Barra, chief executive officer of General Motors, prompted questions about the GM plant in Oshawa, Ont., a facility that does not have a long-term arrangement to continue producing vehicles past 2017.

Bains, enthusing about the future of autonomous cars, said he discussed with Barra "the role Canadian companies can play in developing these technologies" and "the future of the auto sector."

Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains fields questions in Davos, Switzerland on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. Bains and several other cabinet ministers are accompanying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the World Economic Forum where political, business and social leaders gather to discuss world agendas. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"I made the case for Canada," Bains said. "I made the case for the auto sector." 

All the same, there was no agreement on Oshawa to announce today. 

Indeed, it is exceedingly possible that Trudeau and his ministers will leave Davos without a private-sector deal of any kind to parade before the cameras.

"These decisions by companies are not made on the spot," Bains explained. 

One does not become the chief executive of a powerful multinational by regularly conceiving and completing deals over the course of an hour with a cabinet minister. But it might fairly raise the question of whether there is anything more to these meetings than a mutually beneficial chance to be seen in each other's company.

'Relationships matter'

"What they're looking for is a government that's willing to work with them, to partner with them," Bains said of the companies in Davos. "And we made it very clear that Canada is open for business, that we're a willing partner."

The question of the federal government's willingness to invest in private-sector initiatives was raised — Bains noted the existence of the Automotive Innovation Fund, but said GM had made no additional ask — but Bains said he was also trying to highlight Canada's "unique value propositions," things like diversity.

"Relationships matter," Bains added. "I think the fact that there's so much global competition that when they have a relationship, when they have a level of comfort, it does go a long way."

Presumably, if such discussions didn't seem to matter, the lobbying industry wouldn't exist. And possibly any government that avoided Davos could be accused of neglecting its responsibilities somehow.

But, as luck would have it, testimony to the utility of Davos was offered on Wednesday by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. In a return to the forum, Couillard used the occasion to announce a number of new deals, including a partnership with PSA Peugeot Citroën, the French car manufacturer, around electric vehicles.

"We make announcements, here, when they are ready. And it isn't true that we can make announcements at every foreign gathering," he said, asked if his array of deals might be showing up the prime minister.

"The first time that I made contacts to develop this project was in Davos, last year."

Thus, it might be necessary to check back with Davos next year to judge Trudeau's effort this year.


Aaron Wherry

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.


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