Before starting the job, he and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson negotiated an “ethical wall” designed to insulate him from both his holdings (his leave-of-absence agreement ensured he wouldn’t forfeit savings and stock options that “took many years for me to earn”) and his old friends in high finance.
The wall didn’t seem enough to ease some concerns. “You can’t even order pizza for the PMO, from what I can see here – Onex owned CiCi’s Pizza Parlor,” the NDP’s Pat Martin complained during the hearings. “Every move you make, every breath you take puts you in a conflict of interest.”
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Mr. Wright conceded the point: “Mr. Chair, there are certain states in the United States where, if I order pizza, I probably shouldn’t do it from CiCi’s.”
Mr. Wright’s critics remained vigilant for signs of conflict – complaining to the commissioner again last summer when he appeared to have been lobbied on behalf of gold czar Peter Munk, an old friend, and his son, Anthony Munk, a former colleague. Yet the Prime Minister has come to rely increasingly on his top aide, and has broadened his role.
Peter White of the Mulroney PMO feels the fact that Mr. Wright is unafraid to express his opinion is appreciated by his boss. “The danger with any prime minister – and in my view it’s a particularly danger with Stephen Harper – is you surround yourself with yes men, and nobody dares to speak truth to power,” he explains.
“Harper’s a very smart guy, and I think realizes this danger. He wouldn’t want too many Nigels – but one good Nigel is probably enough.”
Insiders confirm that Mr. Wright can be frank but caution that he also takes care not to go overboard. “The PM takes Nigel seriously,” says one. “He respects Nigel’s intelligence because it’s not ostentatious.”
All of which is further evidence that, as at least one old friend thinks, he is right where he wants to be – “involved, massively, in the conservative political apparatus.”
People on Bay Street who still talk to Mr. Wright report that he has found the job exhausting, even for someone with his stamina, but was energized by the challenge. What effect the current controversy will have on his longevity is an open question.
Although in public, Conservatives defend Mr. Wright’s decision to bail out Mr. Duffy, some privately acknowledge that it was a terrible lapse in judgment.
Mr. Harper, said to have been kept in the dark about Mr. Wright’s generosity, has yet to address the situation. But as one Tory asks: “How can you get rid of a guy who gives up $90,000 of his own money to help the government? You don’t.”
As well, with a cabinet shuffle on the immediate horizon, followed by a pivotal Throne Speech in the fall, there is much work to be done – especially because the smooth sailing seen during the first half of the majority mandate may be over.
Betting on the second coming of Trudeaumania has the Liberals now surging in the polls while Thomas Mulcair, the tough-minded Quebecker leading the New Democrats, has bolstered the party’s fiscal credibility by casting off the “socialist” label seen as toxic to centrist voters.
So Mr. Harper may have a fight on his hands when he seeks re-election in 2015. Does his chief of staff even want stick around that long?
Don’t ask Mr. Schwartz when to expect his protégé, and potential successor, back making mega-deals in Toronto. “I don’t know the answer,” he insists.
After nearly 13 years at Onex, money is clearly not an issue.
“I doubt any job in the rest of his life will be a tenth as interesting …,” Mr. Balsillie says, “because you’re shaping the country – you’re shaping the world.”
Providing you can weather the storm.
This article was written with reporting assistance from Boyd Erman in Report on Business.