It probably wasn’t fair, the word that got thrown around this past spring when Dalton McGuinty named his new chief of staff. Not to the generally well-regarded veteran aide he was replacing; not to other candidates for the job; not to everyone else in the Ontario Premier’s office.
But to call David Livingston an “adult” was to neatly sum up why he was brought on board. And it indirectly explained similar hires made not long ago by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Alison Redford.
Look close enough, and you might see an encouraging mini-trend. Even as virtually all politicians are accused of being too political, three of the most powerful ones in the country have placed their faith in executives – people who don’t live and breathe politics, avoid seeking out attention and stay off Twitter – to try to get away from day-to-day partisan sniping and focus on driving forward agendas.
Mr. Harper’s hire, Nigel Wright, was the first of the three, and perhaps best fits the mould.
It would be a stretch to say that, since the former Onex executive was enlisted in late 2010, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have shed their reputation for hyper-partisanship. But the impulse to gratuitously pick fights has been tempered by a more patient focus on a small-c conservative agenda. And that shouldn’t be chalked up just to the luxuries of a majority Parliament.
Mr. Wright has, by many accounts, brought a sense of perspective to the Prime Minister’s Office and to the Prime Minister himself. Many of Mr. Harper’s aides have had reputations for reinforcing his worst instincts toward thin-skinned score-settling. Mr. Wright, by contrast, is said to help keep Mr. Harper’s eye on the ball, because he commands his respect.
Mr. Livingston, a former bank executive who spent the past few years managing public-private partnerships as CEO of Infrastructure Ontario, doesn’t have to worry much about smoothing Mr. McGuinty’s edges. His perceived value lies in bringing professionalism and focus to a third-term government that seemed to be perpetually scrambling for survival even before it was saddled with a minority legislature.
The Premier’s office is now run more like a corporation, with more delegation and clearer lines of responsibility. Meanwhile, Mr. Livingston’s lack of partisan background is meant to allow for some pushback against powerful campaign operatives who might worry more about keeping seats than restructuring a deficit-plagued government.
Farouk Adatia, named Ms. Redford’s chief of staff the same week Mr. Livingston came on as Mr. McGuinty’s, is somewhat less of an outsider, having been a fundraiser and unsuccessful star candidate for the provincial Tories.
Still, the appointment of the hotshot corporate lawyer to replace Stephen Carter, a high-profile strategist who steered Ms. Redford’s come-from-behind election win, fits the same pattern. Trying to establish herself as a more forward-looking premier than her immediate predecessors, Ms. Redford reached out to someone she thinks can bring business-world discipline into government.
This is not exactly a revolutionary concept. The name that often comes up in conversations about the current crowd, somewhere after the whole “adult” thing, is Derek Burney – a former senior public servant and diplomat widely credited with giving more direction to Brian Mulroney’s government than the staunch partisans who served as chief of staff before him.
The current wave may be a coincidence, with Mr. Harper, Mr. McGuinty and Ms. Redford all just happening to reach the points in their respective careers at which they realized their offices needed a change of pace. Or maybe there’s something else happening: a recognition of why behind-the-scenes gravitas matters more than ever.
Power has been centralized in the offices of premiers and prime ministers to the extent that chiefs of staff are more powerful than most senior ministers. We can lament that, but it’s not likely to change any time soon. Nor is the fact that it’s easy, with a cynical public and a media largely focused on game-oriented political coverage, to slip into a constant campaign mode in which long-term public-policy goals fall by the wayside.
If leaders don’t want to live with that, one of the remedies is to try to hand all that backroom power to someone who can rise above the fray.
It’s too early to judge Mr. Livingston and Mr. Adatia, if not Mr. Wright, and if they wind up leaving with tails between their legs they could be held up as cautionary examples. For the sake of good governance, here’s hoping they help set new standards instead.