Todd Smith defends secrecy about India visit

Economic Development Minister Todd Smith is defending the secrecy around his trade mission to India last week, saying he didn’t want to disrupt the election in the world’s largest democracy by becoming a media “spectacle.”

“We went direct to business and heard from them and also shared the news that Ontario is open for business,” a jet-lagged Smith told reporters Monday after returning from the jaunt, news of which was not revealed until after he touched down overseas.

“The big reason was because there’s a federal election underway in India right now and we didn’t want to interfere,” he said. “There’s 900 million people voting in India right now.”

Smith’s rationale for keeping the trip under the radar was quickly rejected by the opposition, who noted previous governments have telegraphed such trade missions to India, China, the Middle East and elsewhere well in advance, and lined up delegations of businesses to seal deals bringing jobs to Ontario.

“I guess the minister must be a rock star in India,” quipped interim Liberal leader John Fraser. “I’ll have to check to see if he’s doing any Bollywood cameos in the next few months.”

“If there were some concerns about the election, then why not wait until after the election to go on the trip?” asked Green Leader Mike Schreiner.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has met previously with former PC leader Patrick Brown, and also with former premier Kathleen Wynne on one of her trade missions — is running against India National Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers. Five weeks of voting across India are scheduled to end May 19, with results to be released four days later.

Smith acknowledged no deals were signed and characterized his visits to 50 companies as “groundwork” and “making connections” for Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, which has frozen the minimum wage at $14 and promised to cut red tape for businesses.

“This was about the changes we’ve made in Ontario so far.”

He would not detail how many staff members went with him, other than to describe them as “less than a handful,” and said expenses will be filed in due course.

“I encourage you all to get those expenses, find out who went, and then compare it to the Liberals who went on this trip a couple of years ago and you will say, ‘Man, this was very responsible.”

An official in Smith’s office later clarified that Smith took four staff members, compared with the previous Liberal mission that included 23 staff and government officials along with then-premier Kathleen Wynne and a number of cabinet ministers.

New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said the veil of secrecy around Smith’s trip was “troubling” and suspicious.

“It’s simply about being open and transparent, something this government used to complain about the previous government when they were in opposition. We’ve gone from bad to worse. Now we’re not even getting information about trade missions,” Horwath added.

She suggested Smith may have missed some leads by excluding Canadian companies with Indian connections from the venture.

“The Indian business community here at home, I’m sure they would have been interested to know that the government was going,” she said. “Perhaps there were some possibilities of communications to relatives and friends in the business community that might have helped the minister on his trip.”

Smith said he met with companies including the giant Tata conglomerate, e-commerce firm PayTM and information technology giant Infosys, which has a Canadian office in Mississauga.

“We know that there will be hundreds of new jobs created at PayTM here in the coming months,” he added, noting Infosys is “interested in expanding their footprint here in Ontario.”

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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