For Navdeep Bains, the minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, or, “the minister of everything,” as some say, the working relationships he has been cultivating are the beginning and the end of his political power and influence this year.
It is expected that in 2017, Bains will roll out the wide-spanning innovation agenda the Liberals see as a people-focused scaling-up of Canadian idea incubators and economic accelerators.
“It’s not going to be simply an innovation, science, economic development plan, it’s going to be a government-wide approach that’s really going to implicate industry, academia, and civil society as well, because we all need to work together,” said Bains, adding that the intended outcome will be “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
And he plans to achieve this in part by leveraging his contacts and connections, and likely cashing in some of his own political capital.
“I take pride in building those relationships and I think those relationships are really critical for not only developing a plan, but critically important when we execute and implement a plan,” Bains told P&I when asked where he sees his power stem from.
Bains is in charge of a multi-billion dollar department formerly called Industry Canada, now called Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Within his department he oversees the federal government’s six regional economic development agencies and has Kirsty
Duncan, minister of Science, and Bardish Chagger, minister of Small Business and Tourism reporting to him under the same departmental umbrella.
He is a member of four cabinet committees: Agenda, Results and Communications; Growing the Middle Class; Environment, Climate Change and Energy; and Defence Procurement.
Lobbyists who agreed to speak with P&I on background about Bains said that he’s come a long way since stepping into the role. At first, they said, he seemed in a bit over his head but is now viewed as being a capable custodian of the portfolio. Those who have sat down with him, or whose clients have, say he understands business and interfaces well with industry representatives, prioritizing results.
One of the most-lobbied cabinet ministers, he’s viewed as accessible. It’s also said that he is quick to pick up the phone himself, and did so a great deal when he first became a minister.
“My style is very much built on how do you create consensus? How do you bring people together? How do you first of all, value diversity?” Bains told P&I, adding that he sees that combination of points of view as a key to unlocking better decision-making.
Because of his tentacle-like portfolio in a government-by-cabinet style of leadership, nearly all roads pass through Bains, who is liaising with nearly half of the cabinet on other priorities, like clean technology with Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr; procurement with Public Services Minister Judy Foote; and with International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Finance Minister Bill Morneau on expanding trade opportunities for Canadian companies.
“I think it’s about relationships… I’ve spent a lot of time with people who care about progressive values and who want to move a progressive agenda forward. And for me I think it’s important to get the big things right… but little things matter as well: making sure you go out of your way to listen to people—wish them a Happy Birthday, talk about their families, get to know them on a personal level—I think that dimension is so critical because politics is about people and if you don’t understand people and their point of view, and if you don’t engage with them in a meaningful way, you really can’t help make meaningful progress,” said Bains.
His ministerial mandate has already seen him restore the long-form census, expand broadband coverage, and attempt to stiffen the backbone of Statistics Canada.
Insiders said with more mandate commitments to be filled this year, the scrutiny will build, as will some stakeholders’ dissatisfaction with the outcome, but observers say Bains has the character to take it on the chin.
The file and responsibility he shoulders secures his place as an influencer, but it’s also because of his close ties to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle that he’s viewed as a powerful and trusted cabinet adviser. Bains was one of the first supporters for Justin Trudeau as party leader, and worked on his leadership campaign in 2013 by campaigning for him in the GTA.
Bains’ strong Toronto ties are another major source of his political power, sources said, adding that they keep him in the loop of many government decisions.
“He’s a very valued adviser of the Prime Minister and people know that… he’s really connected,” his former parliamentary secretary, Greg Fergus told P&I, on his former boss’s reputation both on the Hill and in the GTA.
“He’s just one super competent guy; he knows his file, he knows his issues, it’s very much a part of him,” added Fergus, who went
on to list off a handful of books Bains read in the weeks after being sworn-in. Among the books was Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.
Fergus said Bains comes to meetings having done his homework enough to engage the stakeholder in the meeting, asking a few questions off the top to reassure them he knows what he’s talking about, but then will sit quietly and listen, taking notes in meetings and debriefing with his staff afterwards to go over what they heard and what they understood.
However, the liaising and question-asking may have a tendency to run long; Bains has a reputation for less-than-perfect punctuality, often carrying on conversations well into his next-scheduled meeting time, according to some insiders.
Before getting into politics, Bains—who holds an MBA and has his accounting designation—worked in accounting and finance at Nike and the Ford Motor Company, and was a visiting professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. He also has close ties to local charities and cultural groups in his riding.
“He’s always had a head for business, whether he was working at Ford or Nike, he was always interested in what made business tick,” said Matthew Rowe, who worked as his legislative assistant and communications director between 2007 and 2011.
Bains says he wasn’t political at a young age and was set on rising up the corporate ladder at Ford, but, in 2004 he wasn’t happy with the roster of federal Liberal candidates vying for the riding he resided in, so as he phrased it, he put his “turban in the race.”
He ran, and won, becoming the MP for what was then the riding of Mississauga-Brampton South, Ont., at age 26. He held that riding until 2011 when he was defeated alongside a number of his Liberal caucus-mates. During those seven years as an MP, he had a taste of power as the parliamentary secretary to then-prime minister Paul Martin; and then many critic portfolios while in opposition under then-prime minister Stephen Harper.
Bains told P&I that after he lost the election, he spent days thinking his phone wasn’t working; he even had his wife, Brahamjot, call him to test it. Alas, it was simply a case of an abrupt change in lifestyle.
But Bains was re-elected in 2015 with 62.3 per cent of the vote. His riding is now called Mississauga-Malton, Ont. and that go-go-go, always-ringing-phone lifestyle has returned.
In fact, he told P&I the part of the job he likes the least is the amount of time he’s away from home and his two daughters: Nanki who is nine, and Kirpa who is six. He said he’s found the time management hard, but has prioritized any time off by spending it with them rather than friends or other social activities.
Because of the toll on his personal life, when asked what his career and political aspirations were, Bains told P&I he doesn’t see himself in politics long-term. “I have other dreams and hopes,” he said.
He added that after he’s fulfilled his goals as minister, he would like to “pursue other paths,” perhaps in business or academia. He added that he may like to work more with youth, or in innovation, but wants to continue challenging current ideas.
Briefing notes on Bains
Q: What does innovation mean to you?
A: “Innovation is a mindset. It’s about challenging the status quo, it’s about finding solutions to problems, but fundamentally innovation is about being better.”
Q: how do you clear your head during your free time?
A: “Primarily for me, the best coping mechanism—the best way to relax—is through exercise, so I try to keep a fairly regular workout routine, where I try to work out everyday.” (P&I has heard he’s a pretty good basketball player, and a big Toronto Raptors fan)
Q: What is your favourite movie?
A: “Shawshank Redemption. I think that movie was so powerful; the story of perseverance, determination, and patience. No matter what life throws at you, you need to be focused on something bigger than yourself. That movie, for me, was very moving.”
Q: Who is someone you think embodies power and influence that you consider a role model?
A: “I would say my six-year-old daughter, because she has a lot of influence and is a very powerful young lady. No, but for me politically speaking, I was a big fan of Pierre Elliott Trudeau… the reason being is that for me he was a transformative figure—not only as the prime minister—but the influence he had with the charter of rights and freedoms.”