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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during an interview with The Globe and Mail in his Parliament Hill office on Oct. 6, 2009.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during an interview with The Globe and Mail in his Parliament Hill office on Oct. 6, 2009.

Ignatieff moves to replace top aide Add to ...

Jean Chrétien's smiling spin doctor will take the reins in Michael Ignatieff's troubled opposition leader's office, as the Liberal Leader moved to replace the circle of advisers that brought him into politics.

Peter Donolo, known as the Chrétien communications director who relentlessly aimed the Liberal message at main street without cracking his veneer of good cheer, will become Mr. Ignatieff's chief of staff.

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Mr. Ignatieff, under fire after conflicts within his party and a steep fall in the polls, is changing his top aide amid criticism from some Liberals that the team that helped him get into politics didn't have the experience to guide the party to an election victory.

Several Liberal sources said he had fired his chief of staff, Ian Davey.

"I am pleased to announce the arrival of Peter Donolo, who has accepted the role of chief of staff," Mr. Ignatieff said in a statement last night. "Mr. Donolo brings a wealth of experience to this role through his long service as the director of communications for prime minister Jean Chrétien and in his leading role at [the polling firm]The Strategic Counsel.

"Ian Davey has my gratitude for his enormous service in building this OLO team, and I am grateful for his continuing counsel."

Liberal sources said that Mr. Ignatieff asked Mr. Davey to stay on as an adviser, but they didn't expect that he would.

Two others close to Mr. Davey, deputy chief of staff Dan Brock, and communications director Jill Fairbrother, who is Mr. Davey's partner, were not fired, but many Liberals believed they might leave.

The staff change came in a messy internal scene, according to Liberal insiders. Mr. Davey and Ms. Fairbrother saw reports on TV, and Ms. Fairbrother denied to reporters that anything was happening - but Mr. Ignatieff confirmed it to them later last night.

Mr. Davey had known about efforts to recruit Mr. Donolo to play some role for more than a week, but did not know it was for his job until late Tuesday.

Liberal sources said that about 10 days ago, it became clear that Mr. Ignatieff was taking advice to reach out for help to party veterans, and started asking not just Chrétien veterans like Mr. Donolo to join his team, but former advisers to Paul Martin like Tim Murphy and Elli Alboim to play a more important advisory role.

Mr. Donolo said in an e-mail last night that he is happy to be back with the Liberals.

"Michael Ignatieff is an outstanding Canadian who I believe would make an excellent prime minister," he said. "I am fortunate to be building on the work initiated by Ian Davey."

The changes come after heavy criticism from inside the party.

Critics said Mr. Ignatieff's staff pushed him to declare that he would attempt to defeat the government as soon as possible, a move that backfired with an election-weary public.

And his advisers took the brunt of the blasts when he overruled his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Coderre, to allow former justice minister Martin Cauchon to run in the Outremont riding, which had been promised to another candidate. Mr. Coderre quit the post, saying the Leader's Toronto advisers were giving poor advice on Quebec.

A fall in the polls - the latest Ipsos-Reid survey showed the Liberals with 25 per cent support, compared to 40 per cent for the Conservatives - made the clamour for change louder.

Mr. Davey and Mr. Brock were instrumental in bringing Mr. Ignatieff back from his Harvard career as an academic and pundit to run for Parliament, and then the leadership.

Mr. Brock, working in the early 1990s as a producer for CBC radio host Peter Gzowski, met Mr. Ignatieff when he was an on-air guest and was impressed. He and Mr. Davey, son of legendary Liberal strategist Keith Davey, had worked briefly on the short-lived 2003 leadership campaign of former deputy prime minister John Manley, and joined forces to persuade him to return to Canada.

Mr. Ignatieff clearly took to heart the criticism that the staff who win the leadership cannot always steer the course to winning government: He courted Mr. Donolo for several weeks, including a long lunch meeting last week.

Some said they expect the new chief aide to bring a major shift of style and operations.

Until this week, Mr. Donolo was a pollster with The Strategic Counsel, which conducts surveys for The Globe and Mail and CTV News, was known in Mr. Chrétien's PMO as the strategist who deflated grandiose strategies with an insistence that the Liberal message had to connect with mainstream voters.

He was also known for keeping a smiling face of good cheer with the media even when the news was bad - although some who know him insist that behind the scenes, he can be tough.

As communications director to Mr. Chrétien in opposition, he saw his leader repeatedly written off as Tuesday's man, but the party's relentless focus on a job-creation message in the 1993 election campaign, and Mr. Donolo's efforts to humanize the man - he always tipped reporters when the leader was taking a ride on a scooter or water-skis - helped turn that tide.

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