Stephen Harper has hired a new top spokesman for his office as the Conservative government readies for a return to the Commons this fall where it’s expected to exert even tighter control over the message as it grapples with the Senate expenses scandal.
Jason MacDonald, a 41-year-old public-relations veteran, replaces Andrew MacDougall as director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr. MacDonald most recently served as chief spokesman for federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
Insiders expect Mr. MacDonald will have a lower public profile in the post than his two predecessors now that long-time Harper loyalist Jenni Byrne, who has returned to the PMO to help prepare for the 2015 election, exerts a stronger influence over the office’s communication strategy.
“He won’t be a celebrity director of communications,” said one Conservative, referring to the more prominent and conspicuous roles played by former spokesmen, such as Dimitri Soudas or Mr. MacDougall, who used Twitter adeptly to defend and promote the Prime Minister.
Mr. MacDonald, who is bilingual, comes to the job with more corporate communications experience than many predecessors. He previously worked as director of communications for Carleton University and, prior to that, as director of public relations and corporate communications for the CBC. He also served as chief of staff at CBC TV.
Carleton University president Roseann O’Reilly Runte on Thursday praised Mr. MacDonald’s work record at her institution, calling him an “extremely bright, energetic, and dedicated communications expert who made a strong contribution.”
Married, with twin daughters, Mr. MacDonald has partisan chops. He carried the banner for Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives in the 2011 Ontario provincial election, running unsuccessfully in the riding of Ottawa South against then-premier Dalton McGuinty.
Earlier this week, demonstrating message discipline, Mr. MacDonald refused to discuss his future amid speculation that he’d been tapped for the job. “I’m happily serving Minister Valcourt,” he told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. He declined to speak Thursday after his appointment was announced but is expected to start the new job next week.
Mr. MacDonald becomes the eighth director of communications for Mr. Harper, who is also in his eighth year in office. Many political jobs have a high turnover rate but chief PMO spokesman is especially trying because the incumbent frequently wears blame for how controversies are handled.
Ms. Byrne, a fierce partisan who has rejoined the PMO as a deputy chief of staff, will keep a tight rein on communications to ensure the Conservatives generate more press for efforts on jobs and the economy and less coverage of the corrosive Senate expenses controversy that has triggered RCMP investigations and cost Mr. Harper his much-valued top aide Nigel Wright.
The Harper government is delaying reopening Parliament until Oct. 16 as it makes plans to reboot its appeal to voters. The Conservatives return after Thanksgiving with a Throne Speech to outline their agenda for the next two years.
During an Ottawa Sun campaign-period interview in 2011, Mr. MacDonald said what bothered him most about present-day society is “the need for instant gratification.” He revealed he keeps a piece of the fabric used to make his wife’s wedding dress in his wallet.
He also admitted he tried marijuana in high school.
The Conservatives attacked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau several weeks ago for admitting he’d smoked pot even as an MP.
Asked Thursday whether the PMO wanted to comment on Mr. MacDonald’s youthful dalliance with cannabis, a spokesman replied: “Nope.”