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March 2001

A Conversation with the Honourable Brian Tobin, Minister of Industry
By Jennifer Millenor

 

In our last issue, we asked Industry Canada employees to submit questions that they would like to ask the Minister of Industry, given the chance. Argus staff recently had the opportunity to interview Minister Brian Tobin, and to pose some of the questions submitted.

 

It's about 9:10 a.m. The Minister has just finished meeting Industry Canada employees at a reception in Ottawa.

 

As we set up for the interview, Minister Tobin tries to fit in some breakfast. His typical workday is 16–17 hours long. With 17 000 employees, many high-profile federal programs, and the media’s keen interest in his every political move, Mr. Tobin is a busy man. At 9:30 a.m. he must leave for another engagement. Argus has 20 minutes.

 

We start by asking Minister Tobin about his reaction to being named our minister. He tells us that he was thrilled to have been assigned to Industry Canada. "I was extremely happy to be in a department which is almost unique amongst government departments in the sense that the mission statement and the task is one in which we are able to work with people who are interested in building. Here is a department where we are working with primarily the private sector; working in a public policy role; working with people who want to build the economy, create an innovative economy, help Canada position itself to be competitive in the context of a global economy. It’s just fundamentally a very positive agenda. So I was delighted — I can’t think of a better job that you can have within government."

 

As positive as his appointment as Minister of Industry may have been, Brian Tobin and his staff have been working very long hours to familiarize themselves with the Department. Like many of us, he admits that he has had a hard time of late balancing the pressures of his public office with his obligations to his family.

 

That’s not to say that his family is sacrificed for the sake of his career. Far from it. In fact, he and his wife have gone to considerable trouble to ensure that this is not the case. "We have made a family decision not to move to Ottawa as a family until June because that’s the end of the school year and I have a 14-year-old son, Jack, who we want to make sure is able to finish his year. I also have a son, Adam, who is 18 and a daughter, Heather, who is 20. They’re both university students so they’re less affected by that decision." So Minister Tobin lives in Ottawa by himself during the week, and on weekends he goes home to be with his family.

A father himself, Minister Tobin had some words of advice for a Co-op student who submitted a question seeking career insight from him. "I would say this: Traditionally, when we talked about the relationship between government and corporations, governments taxed corporations. More and more, corporations (in terms of where they’re going to establish their business and create opportunities) are taxing governments. But there is a new trend now emerging and that is that people who have particular skill sets are actually taxing the corporations. The world has changed and it’s people (not governments, not corporations, but people with skills) that are contemporary and relevant, and it’s those people who are determining where growth is going to happen.

 

"So what do I say to young people today? They are going to be the first generation of truly emancipated individuals who are going to determine — by virtue of the kind of opportunity that will surround them, and the type of growth and magic and dynamic new development that they can create right out of their minds — where and how countries will grow. I think this is a tremendous time to be going into the work force. They have bargaining power and they have clout like no other generation before them."

 

Our minister has high expectations for his time at the Department. He would like to see IC get the press it deserves for its success stories, and wants to ensure that Canadians know about all of the programs and services IC has put in place for them. "What’s my big challenge? Firstly, to go out and let Canadians know about the services and programs available to them from Industry Canada. And secondly, to go out and tell the world that Canada is competitive, Canada is ready and Canada is a good place in which to invest and in which to grow a company and its products."

 

He refers to the emphasis that the federal government is putting on national goals such as innovation (one of Industry Canada’s five strategic objectives). "Well, the government is obviously putting a very high priority, as we saw in the Throne Speech, on developing Canada’s capabilities, especially in the area of R&D [research and development]. We’ve undertaken to double our investment in R&D and we’ll be moving to fill that promise over the next few months.

"It is important to communicate where we want to go but it’s also important to put the monies in place to build the partnerships that allow Canada to be competitive in this global economy. And if we sit and celebrate what we’ve achieved to this point, the time that we spend celebrating is time lost in terms of innovating; time lost in terms of ensuring that we stay competitive and stay ahead of the pack. So there’s no sense here, where I sit, that we can afford to pause very long to pat ourselves on the back. We can take a snapshot, we can spend 20 minutes doing an interview and after that we’ve all got to go back to work because we’ve all got to stay ahead of the pack."

 

A few Argus readers wanted to know what got Brian Tobin interested in the political life in the first place. "Quite honestly, going back to high school and university days…you know, peers suggesting that you would make an effective representative of a class or effective representative on a student council — that kind of thing. It was kind of a surprise to have peers and colleagues saying I ought to run for student council and then coming to the conclusion at a certain point in time that maybe this is something that I can do."

Does Minister Tobin consider himself what one reader termed a "born communicator"? His response: "I think it’s genetic." We all laugh and he continues: "There is a strong oral tradition in Newfoundland. I’m not sure why that is but I can tell you in Newfoundland, still today, if there is a debate, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador will go to the debate and they will pay more attention to the individual who stands without a briefing note in their hand, without a speech, without a text and speaks from the heart….That tradition encourages you to think about what it is that you want to say and then to say it, hopefully, in plain and effective language."

 

Some of Argus’ Francophone readers wanted to know if he would reclaim his bilingualism by living and working in the nation’s capital. How did he answer that question? How else? In French: "Absolument, je crois que c’est possible pour moi, en m’exerçant, de parler français avec mes collègues francophones d’Industrie Canada." [Absolutely, I think that with practice I’ll be able to speak French with my Francophone colleagues at Industry Canada.]

Argus asked Minister Tobin how Industry Canada can balance the needs of consumers with the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. "Among public policy makers there should not be a contradiction between the need on the one hand to have a strong and attractive business environment and on the other the need to respect the prerogatives of consumers. In fact, most businesses today increasingly understand that it makes good business sense to have a good consumer policy and it makes very bad business sense to find yourself behaving in a way inconsistent with the rights of consumers. Those who go down that path frequently find that their stock disappears in a flash. We’re moving toward a time, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to consumers, that the right business case is one that is respectful of the needs of the environment and is respectful of the rights of consumers."

 

Minister Tobin told us that the message he would most like to send to the employees of Industry Canada is this: "I’m a strong believer in team work. I’m a strong believer that the team will function only as well as we accord respect and dignity to the value of every job by every employee. No employee (in any department that I’m minister of) has any greater value than any other employee. The person who stands there in the morning and makes sure that the doors are open and that the floors are clean is as important to me — and the kind of organization that I want to run — as the Deputy Minister. I may see more of the Deputy Minister but everybody counts in the organization. That’s one of the messages that I want to send the Department early: That we are a team. Everybody’s work has equal value. We need to respect and support each other. We need to be excited about each other’s projects and each other’s successes. And we need to celebrate."

 

On our way out, we asked the Honourable Minister Tobin if we might ever call him "the Right Honourable." Of course, this is a typical interview question for Brian Tobin.

 

Not to disappoint, he gave us his typical answer — a quick smile and a laugh.

 

Argus March 2001

 

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