CHINA — The mayors of B.C.’s biggest cities are heading to China this week on separate missions, with Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson celebrating a longtime sister-city pact with Guangzhou and Surrey’s Linda Hepner saying she’s in search of more investment opportunities.
The trip marks the third for Robertson after his first “economic” visit there in 2010, and the first for Hepner, who is tagging along with a delegation led by Premier Christy Clark. Hepner, who is in her first term as mayor, has previously gone to Israel and India on similar missions.
“It’s no secret I’m looking for investment and looking for people who are going to be attracted to putting their head offices in Surrey,” she said.
Such a mantra is touted by most politicians when they head overseas on a trade mission or other relationship-building exercise.
But some question whether cities really benefit from trade missions and overseas conferences, or if they are using them as an excuse to travel on the taxpayers’ dime and avoid day-to-day duties.
Burnaby came under fire in 2012, for instance, when it authorized a handful of councillors and senior staff to travel on five-day trip to Burnaby’s sister city Mesa, Ariz., prompting one resident to write: “This council continues to amaze me in the way they waste our hard earned tax dollars on junkets to other countries. This year we saw a $6,500 taxpayer-funded trip to Arizona and now we are going to be wasting another $30,000 for a trip to China and Taiwan.”
Keith Head, a professor in the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business, said while the missions likely result in stronger partnership, he’s doubtful they’re worth the money, noting a study he co-conducted in 2010 with professor John Ries found that trade, on average, remained the same despite costly trips abroad.
The study, which analyzed Canada’s bilateral merchandise trade data for 181 countries between 1993 and 2003, focused on missions involving prime minister and premiers, but Head said they would apply equally to municipal politicians. The professors looked at the commodity and service trade and foreign direct investment during that period, using data from Statistics Canada and Eurostat, the statistical agency for the European Union, among other sources.
“It’s hard for me to see where a mayor could do something a prime minister couldn’t do,” Head said this week. “We know connections drive business but you probably can’t do these things in a week. It’s all about followup.
“These trade missions, they’re like a week at most so they’re not really going to create deals, or they’re announcing deals someone else has stitched together. It’s the cultivation of potential donors that takes place over years. There’s a limit to what a mayor can do.”
The Canadian federal government first started regular trade missions in 1994, claiming these efforts generated tens of billions of dollars in new business deals. In 2008, the B.C. government also provided more than $1 million to 24 municipalities to reach out and find a “sister city” in Asia. Robertson’s trip to China this time is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its sister city agreement with Guangzhou.
The trip, sandwiched in between other high-profile jaunts to New York, Washington, D.C., Vatican City and Paris (this December for the UN climate change talks), is the third trip Robertson has taken to China since 2010. That first trip, which ran over 11 days and cost taxpayers about $120,000, was touted by Robertson as the first time in recent history that a Vancouver mayor had gone to China specifically with the intent of creating economic opportunities.
“I provide access to Chinese officials in government that are responsible for the majority of economic activity in China,” Robertson said at the time. “It is difficult for these companies to access those officials without a mayor or a senior elected official from here.”
In 2013, Robertson’s trip to China, which included four staff from the Vancouver Economic Commission, three elected officials and five city staff and cost the city $275,000, was billed as attracting investment to Vancouver and promoting deeper cultural ties.
It’s not known exactly what trade spinoffs have come from those trips as Robertson wasn’t available to speak with The Vancouver Sun this week. The city referred a reporter to Ian McKay, CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission, but he was busy with a trade delegation Thursday and declined the interview.
Hepner, whose trip to China is costing Surrey taxpayers $20,000 for the flight, food and hotel, said she’s hoping to piggyback on Clark’s delegation, specifically its focus on issues such as on transit and transportation infrastructure and technology.
While Surrey mayoral candidate Doug McCallum had suggested before the 2014 election that he would stop overseas trips if he were elected, Hepner countered that would “take us from a powerhouse to a punchline.”
“I totally know it helps. I’ve seen it on the ground and I watched it unfold in India. All of these places open up when a mayor attends.”
The mayor, who had promised during her election campaign to have the first leg for a light rail line running in Surrey by 2018, said she intends to seek possible “bridge funding” for the project in China until the TransLink and regional mayors have come up with a new funding source for transportation in the region. “They have one of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced rail systems in the world,” she said.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said he has never attended any trade missions, but as chairman of Metro Vancouver has seen benefits in attending municipal conferences overseas. Metro Vancouver has regularly sent directors to places around the globe, including Mexico, Sweden, Japan and Korea as part of international conferences on everything from garbage to transportation and climate change.
Moore noted many countries like to place value in people with titles. A local Port Coquitlam business secured a huge deal in China for roller coasters, he said, after he joined a Stephen Harper-led delegation there.
“A mayor’s job title in other parts of the world opens a lot of doors,” he said.
Head also said it make sense to visit cities that are huge sources of local immigrants. Before the last municipal election, he noted, then-mayor Dianne Watts of Surrey led a massive delegation to India, which may have been a way for her to show solidarity with her constituents. She also went on trade missions to India in 2010 and in 2011. The latter trip, of which she was joined by councillors Tom Gill and Barinder Rasode, cost Surrey taxpayers about $130,000.
Yet Watts also made two visits to Israel. The city spent about $27,000 in 2013 to send Watts and two city members on the weeklong trip there. The city did not pay for Watts’s latest jaunt to Israel with Hepner this year.
“I suppose it’s quite possible they really believe this stuff works and maybe it does. I can’t rule it out,” Head said, but added that the trips abroad could also be seen as a reprieve from day-day city business. “I would think the evidence would have to be very strong that the deals work, for mayors to justify taking themselves away from their bread and butter and making sure the city functions better. Every day they’re not focusing
on that is a day wasted.”