Rupert Potter

Rupert Potter

British Consul General, Vancouver

Part of UK in Canada

30th May 2013 Vancouver, Canada

Ministerial questions

Over the past few weeks I have been telling a lot of people that Minister Alistair Burt, from the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, is visiting Vancouver. He’s responsible for the UK’s relationship with Canada and much besides. This was big news for me, but it seemed to elicit one of three responses:

a)      “Awesome – what’s he going to be doing?”

b)      “Hmm, is there anything you need from us?”

c)       “Oh?”

The first response clearly suggested an understanding, engagement, an interest in the substance. This is something I’ve come to expect during my first months in Canada, from business, government or NGOs. People willingly give the time of day straight away, but if there is to be further a relationship they expect something meaningful, or at least fun, by way of follow up.

The second response suggested a vague interest combined with a wish not to appear rude. It really meant “what are you telling me for?” Fair enough I guess. Either I could provide more detail to convince them of how interesting this was, or I had chosen the wrong audience.

But the third response concerned me. I worry that many people in the UK, and perhaps the rest of the world, don’t know what Ministers involved in foreign policy actually do, and especially why it matters. That may be due to a natural lack of interest – not everyone has to like reading up on Kissinger or watching BBC World. But it’s also very likely to be because we in the business need to get better at communicating the answers. I could draw on host of examples for reference, but why don’t I go local (they say that’s where all politics lies).

Minister Burt and Consul General Rupert Potter visit the offices of Vancouver-based marine transportation and shipyard company Seaspan.

While Minister Burt was in Vancouver he met the Provincial Government and discussed what they intend to do during their next term in office. He visited Saskatchewan, where he met Premier Brad Wall, and signed a joint Action Plan. He met British businesses operating in BC, and BC businesses investing in the UK. He talked about the UK’s Presidency of the G8 and the summit in mid-June, focussing on trade, transparency and tax; and about the opportunities presented by the Comprehensive European Trade Agreement (CETA).

That sounds like a lot of talk – so what’s the point of it all? Time spent developing relationships builds trust; and trust is the foundation of delivering progress. In that respect it’s no different from business itself. But what does delivering progress then mean? If CETA is agreed, for example, which Canada and the UK both hope it will be, trade between the two will become easier. As a result, small businesses in Surrey (BC or UK), will find they can export more profitably, which means employees not only keep their jobs but will need more people, which means more families with a steady income.

Consul General Tony Kay, British Foreign Minister Alistair Burt and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall meet to discuss the UK-Saskatchewan relationship.

That may not sound much like foreign policy, but in places that aren’t suffering the ravages of instability or war, increasingly it is. If you prefer your policy more traditional though, Minister Burt also ran a Twitter exchange at Hootsuite’s vibrant Vancouver HQ, answering questions on issues from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to the situation in Bahrain. And the response reassured me, for it suggested there are people who do want to know what the UK is actually doing and why it matters (which means I too might get to keep my job).

PS.  If you’re interested in more examples, you can follow @AlistairBurtFCO or @UKinCanada or me @RupertPotterFCO on Twitter, or go to our web page.

About Rupert Potter

Rupert Potter has served as British Consul General in Vancouver since July 2012.