Mr. Sabia goes (back) to Ottawa

Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna, left to right, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Chair of the Board of the Canada Infrastructure Bank Michael Sabia hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

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The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced Monday Michael Sabia’s appointment as deputy minister of finance, the department’s top public-service role. It’s at least the third new role—formal or informal—during the pandemic for which the Liberal government has chosen Sabia, a former CEO of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and of BCE. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s new deputy brings to the role experience managing large institutions, connections in the business community and a belief in the importance of a green recovery.

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The backstory: In April, the government named Sabia chair of the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) in a one-for-two swap, as founding CEO Pierre Lavallée and chair Janice Fukakusa departed. The Crown corporation was set up to fund and attract private-sector capital to megaprojects, but had faced criticism from elsewhere in the federal government as well as industry executives and opposition MPs over the pace and choice of the builds it backed. Sabia fronted the CIB’s Growth Plan, announced in October, a COVID-19-stimulus-themed promise to allocate $10 billion of its $35-billion budget to developments in areas like clean power and broadband over the next two to three years. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also reportedly consulted the former pension-fund executive on plans for the post-pandemic economic recovery. 

The job: The Liberal government’s Fall Economic Statement late last month promised a raft of expanded COVID-19 support measures and tax changes; Sabia will oversee the department implementing most of them. Freeland also promised up to another $100 billion in “targeted” stimulus spending over the next three fiscal years, set in motion once “the virus is under control and the economy is able to effectively absorb it.” Her new deputy will have thoughts on when and how to deploy that money. Maclean’s first reported on Sunday that Sabia would be named to the role.

Quote-unquote: “Let’s never forget that Canada is a small economy,” Sabia told reporters while announcing the CIB’s Growth Plan in October. “We need to attract capital. We need to become one of the most innovative economies in the world.”  

The last time around: In December 2017, then-finance minister Bill Morneau’s economic growth advisory council, of which Sabia was a member, recommended creating new agencies to attract infrastructure and other kinds of foreign direct investment; the superclusters program; a new organization to study Canada’s future-skills needs; and increasing the number of economic immigrants Canada admitted annually.  Et voilà: the Canada Infrastructure Bank and Invest in Canada; superclusters; the Future Skills Centre; and increased immigration targets.   

The back-backstory: Sabia’s got history in Ottawa. The son of St. Catharines, Ont., an economist by training, worked in the finance department in the 1980s, leaving the public service in 1993 after a stint as deputy secretary to the cabinet in the Privy Council Office, the PMO’s bureaucratic equivalent. He was subsequently CFO of the then-privatizing Canadian National Railway, and CEO of BCE. In March 2009, he was picked to run the Caisse. Under Sabia and Thomas Birch, the global managing director of venture capital and technology he hired, Quebec’s provincial pension fund has invested heavily in the innovation economy.  

What he leaves behind: Sabia was less than a year into a five-year appointment as director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. On Monday, the institute said it had no information to share regarding an interim or permanent replacement. The Liberal government will also need to find a new chair for the CIB, which is supposed to be an arm’s-length agency. The Crown corp does now have a CEO, though: former Infrastructure Ontario head Ehren Cory was appointed in October, after Sabia’s Growth Plan announcement.