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Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, out for an early morning run on April 4, 2013 in Ottawa. On most mornings, we wakes up at 4 a.m. and, before heading to the office, goes for a 20-kilometre run. On his 50th birthday, Mr. Wright will be spending it in the spotlight, just days after footing the $90,000 bill for Senator Mike Duffy’s improper housing expenses. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, out for an early morning run on April 4, 2013 in Ottawa. On most mornings, we wakes up at 4 a.m. and, before heading to the office, goes for a 20-kilometre run. On his 50th birthday, Mr. Wright will be spending it in the spotlight, just days after footing the $90,000 bill for Senator Mike Duffy’s improper housing expenses. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

From our archives: Who is Nigel Wright, the man who bailed out Mike Duffy? Add to ...

Mr. Wright also is known for his charitable efforts. He has pulled back from active participation while in the PMO but still makes private donations and even asks staff members who travel to collect shampoo bottles provided by hotels for use in a women’s shelter.

And how much did he donate that year if it really is more than he now earns? The PMO refuses to disclose what the chief of staff is paid, but his salary should be roughly comparable to that of a deputy minister, who can make as much as $320,000 a year.

As well as money, he has given his time, over the years volunteering at Saint Thomas’s with Out of the Cold, the winter shelter program for the homeless. As a young lawyer, he was especially active in Camp Oochigeas, which provides respite and recreation for children with cancer. A long-time camp counsellor, he also served four years as Oochigeas’s board chair.

The PMO, of course, is no charity: Respect is earned, not given. Staff decide if their chief commands the full backing of the Prime Minister and acts accordingly.

Mr. Wright quickly impressed the troops with his hard work and efficiency. Even running 20 kilometres before dawn rarely keeps him from being first to arrive at the office and last to leave. He is also there on weekends.

This dedication, coupled with his unbridled faith, has some in the PMO now in the habit of asking, “What would Nigel do?” when faced with a predicament.

Each of Mr. Harper’s top aides has faced a different set of challenges.

The first, former university professor Ian Brodie, found senior bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office, the central agency that services the PMO, trying to sidestep the political staff and communicate directly with Mr. Harper. He left not long after a leak embarrassed the government.

Mr. Giorno arrived with experience as chief of staff for Mike Harris, and exerted greater political control over the bureaucracy. Now memos from the PCO wouldn’t go to the Prime Minister unless bearing a PMO staff recommendation.

When Mr. Giorno left after two years, Mr. Wright was content to leave the structure he had created in place. However, there was a distinct change of focus. A minority government has little time for long-term planning, while a majority administration can’t ignore it – especially when economic times are tough.

Mr. Wright’s business acumen also includes seven years on the board of the Conservative Fund, which supervises party financing. During his tenure, it generated enough money to underwrite three election campaigns, pay off the accumulated debts of both predecessor parties, revamp its grassroots fundraising approach and overhaul its computer systems.

So, the PMO became even more businesslike after he took charge. The morning meeting of senior staff, which also includes his deputy, Joanne McNamara, and principal secretary Ray Novak, as well as as half-dozen other department heads, used to go on for hours, sometimes until noon. “Everyone was yapping; there’d be people running in and out.” Now it wraps up by 10 a.m. “Nigel keeps people on task,” one staffer says. “He holds people to deadlines.”

He also provides a steadying influence. “Anyone in his job has to constantly be putting out fires and dealing with flared tempers. He brings … a kind of grounded maturity to all of those flareups.”

The same savvy helps in resolving differences of opinion. “He will either hear both sides of the argument and he will synthesize it into a consensus position, or he will come in with his own position and bring in a group of people who agree with him to project it outward,” one source says.

He is also known to employ canny management techniques. To minimize discord and get the consensus ruling he wants, an insider says, he lines up supporters in advance. “He doesn’t just rely on his power and sheer force of argument to win the day. He also relies on orchestrating situations.”

Mr. Wright still faces constant suspicion from the opposition that, with his background in big business and a lifetime of service to free-enterprise ideology, he is just too close to the private sector.

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