Harper hires a game-changer to run his office

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The Gazette, Monday, September 27, 2010

Back in the day when Nigel Wright was a young staffer in the policy shop of the Prime Minister's Office, I commented on his youthful appearance, wondering if he was old enough to vote.

"Be nice to Nigel," commented Bill Fox, then communications director to Brian Mulroney. "We'll all be working for him some day."

Then a law student at the University of Toronto, Wright was executive assistant to Charley McMillan, who was senior policy adviser to the prime minister. After two years, he returned to Toronto to finish his degree, picked up a Harvard master's in law, and joined the mergers and acquisitions practice of Davies Ward in Toronto.

Since 1997, he has been a top deal-maker for Gerry Schwartz at Onex Corp., of which he's now managing director. Along the way, he has made a ton of money, and a legion of friends, which can't be saidof everyoneonBaySt.

Now he has accepted Stephen Harper's offer to be the next PMO chief of staff and at 46, is returning to the Langevin Block. It is only a few steps down the second-floor corridor from the office he occupied a quarter century ago to the PM's corner suite, but it's also a very long journey.

Wright is an interesting choice in several respects. Although he knows the system inside-out, he's coming in from the outside, without an agenda or any baggage. His background in business and finance suggests Harper will be moving away from wedge-issue politics driven by ideology, to big-picture economic issues that will be the main policy frame until the election. Finally, Wright is decidedly from the Progressive Conservative wing of the party, not the former Reform crowd on the hard right.

"There will be more common sense and less blind ideology," says McMillan, Wright's one-time boss.

That would be refreshing all the way through the system, from the public service, which has put down tools with this government, to the permanent political class of lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists with whom any government must coexist in Ottawa.

The outgoing chief of staff, Guy Giorno, has two young children, which is a very legitimate reason to leave a burnout job after 21/2 years. He will leave behind a decidedly mixed record. His PMO has done an excellent job of managing big files such as the auto bailout and Haitian relief.

But this PMO's fatal flaws have been an obsession with tactics, and an absence of strategic communications to flesh out decisions with narratives. For example, the PM's maternal-health initiative was announced in a single paragraph in a speech to the Davos economic forum, without any communications support to answer questions about a funding envelope, to say nothing of the availability of birth control and therapeutic abortions in the developing world. This is why Harper was completely blindsided by the predictable blowback.

Proroguing the House at Christmas was a major decision that needed more of a narrative than "recalibrating" to back it up. Ending the long-form census in midsummer, when the government was off the air, was a stunning example of abdicating the "air game" to the opposition parties and every interest group in town.

It's not as if they don't have folks working on communications in the Langevin Building. There are 30 people working on "comms" in the PMO, and another 100 upstairs in the Privy Council Office devoted to the PM's and the government's message. So, where's the product, other than juvenile attack lines and talking points that Tory talkers are too embarrassed to repeat on the air?

In Ottawa, the story over the summer was that Giorno was staying until the end of the year. A few weeks ago, the story became that he was leaving by the end of the year. It's exactly the same story, the only difference being that Giorno is now a lame duck.

Normally, a departing PMO chief of staff hands over the files and leaves in short order. A four-month transition period is unheard of and, now that his successor is known, probably untenable.

The Ottawa game just changed.

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