Nigel Wright has been parachuted in to lead high-profile talks on the trans-Pacific free-trade zone. He was instrumental in drafting the policy to limit foreign investment in the oil sands. He is a key strategist on job-skills training arrangements with the provinces. But this week, Stephen Harper’s chief of staff – who is described by one official as “almost like a deputy prime minister,” has known his boss for decades and commands his respect as few others – also became a $90,172.24 liability.
That’s the amount of the personal cheque Mr. Wright wrote so that Senator Mike Duffy, a Harper appointee and Conservative Party campaigner, could repay government expenses he had claimed in error.
Mr. Duffy resigned from the Tory caucus on Thursday night. And federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson will be investigating Mr. Wright’s gift. But the Prime Minister says he is standing by him.
Which may make many Canadians wonder: How has the reclusive Mr. Wright become such a force in Ottawa? And why is Mr. Harper so steadfast in defending someone who has put his office at the centre of a scandal?
If the public has heard of Mr. Wright at all, it’s as a money man – one comfortable handling sums much larger than $90,000.
Until he joined the Prime Minister’s Office more than two years ago, he was a universally respected broker of multimillion-dollar deals for Onex Corp., the private-equity giant said to be Canada’s biggest private-sector employer.
That made him an ideal aide for Mr. Harper – who at that time was saddled with a minority government struggling to balance its books in the wake of the global economic meltdown and needed a chief of staff skilled at business as well as politics.
Onex agreed to do without Mr. Wright’s services as a managing director for up to two years and he officially took command of the PMO on Jan. 1, 2011.
His appointment sparked a media crossfire, pitting detractors suspicious of his big-business background against boosters who at times bordered on fawning: “A genuinely nice guy,” one columnist enthused. “Liked by everyone who knows him.”
Since then, Mr. Wright has become indispensable, sitting with the Prime Minister at the apex of Canada’s political system.
As well as running the PMO, he meets weekly with cabinet members’ chiefs of staff to ensure that they understand government policy – and at times even fills in for their bosses. When he started on the trans-Pacific trade file, he took over for International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
Regarding his work on limiting foreign investment in the oil sands, one insider says: “Nigel had a more sophisticated understanding than [the Department of] Industry about the effects the restrictions would have.”
But Mr. Wright’s influence goes deeper than the here and now. As one senior Conservative puts it, he has “a long history as a political operative.” A close look at his background shows that he has quietly been active at every stage in the evolution of the modern Conservative Party – and is at least partly responsible for making Stephen Harper what he is today.
The son of an engineering technician, Mr. Wright was born in Hamilton 50 years ago this Saturday, and raised in neighbouring Burlington – not far from the Toronto suburb where Mr. Harper grew up.
Having spent some of his formative years living in England, young Nigel did not have an especially high profile in high school. Teachers and classmates recall his name, and little else.
But Globe and Mail readers who spotted an April 10, 1980, letter to the editor from one Nigel Wright of Burlington would have had an inkling of what was to come: Liberal minister Herb Gray, he wrote, “should live up to his pre-election promise to resign.”
That fall, Mr. Wright arrived at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College – and soon hit his stride.
It was at “Trin” – which still carries out such “Oxbridge” traditions as donning gowns for some evening meals – that Mr. Wright encountered an array of remarkable contemporaries. These included Jim Balsillie, future co-founder of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone; writer and thinker Malcolm Gladwell, and political analyst Andrew Coyne.