Fox In The Henhouse

by Glen

My Huffington Post piece on Julian Fantino’s appointment as the new minister for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) created something of a stir, mostly for a couple of reasons.

Usually I don’t write such strongly worded blog posts as I did on this occasion. While I was an MP, I had the official role in the shadow cabinet of Critic for International Cooperation for the official opposition. That basically meant that I was to help oversee and respond to developments that resulted from the government’s actions on CIDA. It was an important file at the time because Canada was to host the G8 summit in Toronto and Muskoka and the Harper government wanted to make CIDA’s efforts regarding child and maternal health for women a key plank of its efforts.

I was obviously selected for that role because of my international experience. I underwent some criticism for placing the health of CIDA itself above the normal partisan practice of critics just lambasting the government for anything it did. However, CIDA and its personnel meant a lot to me and I knew the organization was going through a disillusioning time. I wrote a book on CIDA, its future, and its importance to Canada’s international influence that you can see here. So, when I read of Fantino’s selection as the Agency’s new minister, I understood well enough that the morale in the organization would sink to new levels. One person wrote me on Twitter yesterday, disappointed that I would judge Fantino’s performance before he even had started the job. But in Parliament people quickly establish track records, histories of performance good or bad. Fantino had been our police chief here in my home town of London years ago and then went on to become Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner – a time in which he clearly established himself as a hard-nosed leader. As soon as he entered Parliament following his by-election win a couple of years ago, he continued in the same pattern. This is his trademark and he occasionally boasts of it. There is no reason to assume he’ll be any different at CIDA. In fact, it’s that reputation that has caused numerous writers and journalists to question the Prime Minister’s motives for the appointment.

The second reason some of the blog readers grew upset was the title of the piece – Julian Fantino – An Ego Too Big For The Job. It was a valid criticism, with many feeling that such a tone didn’t really reflect my normal tone as a writer. I agreed, but reminded them that I don’t select the titles for my submissions. I immediately wrote the Huffington Post and expressed my concern, informing them that although I have appreciated the opportunity they afforded for me to write for them, I felt the tone of my pieces was just as vital to me as the content and that I wouldn’t continue unless we could work out some kind of arrangement.

I was impressed when they got back to me immediately, explaining their reasons for the title selection, but saying they understood and that they would change it upon my request. I send in a new title I thought more appropriate and a short while later it was changed. I want to thank the Huffington Post for showing that kind of flexibility.

Whoever oversees the leadership of CIDA has to have a deep understanding of the intricacies of foreign aid in some of the most troubling and destitute areas of the world. Over the last couple of decades, CIDA has had some good leaders and some inept ones, but never has it been led by someone with Fantino’s modus operandi. I spoke with some CIDA folks a couple of days ago who feel this might be the beginning of the end for the Agency. Regardless of whether that is true, Fantino’s appointment has nothing to do with experience and everything to do with politics, and to be so blatantly political over a file that is to see to the spirit and bodies of millions of destitute people around the world is only to damage our international reputation even further. It was a poor selection. For the moment at least, CIDA requires female leadership, preferably someone with international development experience. The Prime Minister instead opted for the Alpha male profile. It put the fox in the henhouse and perhaps the death knell in the Agency, whose personnel are some of the best in the world. CIDA required a champion not a chief and now must live with a selection bound to take it through more difficult days ahead.