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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.

Ottawa Notebook

'This is a game-changer' Add to ...

Politics is a brutal business. The extent of the brutality was on full view last night at a Liberal gathering in downtown Toronto.

It was the annual Walter Gordon Circle dinner and Ted Sorensen, the legendary special counsel and adviser to JFK, was the guest speaker.

Every important Liberal in town was there, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, Senator and co-chair of the national Liberal campaign David Smith, party president Alf Apps and veteran pollster Michael Marzolini. But there was one conspicuous absence: Peter Donolo, the former communications director to Jean Chrétien, national pollster and huge JFK-phile, had cancelled at the last minute.

People were talking. Word had been leaking out that Mr. Donolo, a popular and well-respected Liberal, was about to be appointed Michael Ignatieff's chief of staff. That meant that Ian Davey, 51, son of legendary rainmaker Keith Davey, was out after only several months at the helm in the OLO.

The buzz was one of relief and elation, according to some of the dinner participants.

"This is a game-changer," said one of the dinner guests.

While Mr. Donolo was not answering his phone or returning messages, it wasn't long before the knives came out for Mr. Davey.

"Someone described Ian as the 'Keith without the Davey'," the insider said.

That says it all. Mr. Davey never came close to living up to his father's potential.

A member of the troika who successfully encouraged Mr. Ignatieff to leave his post at Harvard University to run for Canadian politics, Mr. Davey had only been in charge for several months. It had been a very rocky ride.

In those few months, Mr. Ignatieff lost almost all momentum, lurching from crisis to crisis, boldly threatening to take down the government and then tentatively pulling back.

The Liberal Leader's message was confused; the party was sliding in the polls as Stephen Harper's Conservatives consistently flirted with majority support. Nothing seemed to be working.

"A lot of people felt that from both a content and strategic messaging perspective what he was trying to communicate wasn't coming through," a senior Liberal official said.

Mr. Ignatieff clearly felt that, too. For the past few weeks, he has been consulting broadly within the party, calling and meeting with Liberals for their advice on what needed to change.

He got an earful.

"I think there was a feeling his office lacked the experience and depth in terms of the party roots, Ottawa roots," the official said. "They weren't drawing, filtering, synthesizing advice."







There was a view that Mr. Davey and his close-knit group of OLO insiders were too Toronto-centric and had no sense of the rest of the country. They were accused of not consulting and deliberately keeping long-time Liberals out of the loop.

Something had to give.

Insiders say that Mr. Ignatieff made his decision to replace Mr. Davey, his friend and long-time adviser, by himself. It was not made quickly or lightly.

Through talking to grassroots Liberals and others, Mr. Ignatieff spoke to Mr. Donolo and, one official believes, he liked what he heard.

As recently as last week, the two met for lunch and the deal was struck for Mr. Donolo to come back to Ottawa. He is to start his new job tomorrow, according to a source.

Sources say that Mr. Donolo will have carte blanche to assess his office. It is not clear if principal secretary Dan Brock or communications director Jill Fairbrother will remain at the OLO.

While Toronto Liberals were chuffed - congratulatory emails have been exchanged throughout the night - the mood was entirely different in Ottawa.

Word began to leak out in the nation's capital just after Question Period, with senior campaign people receiving calls about Mr. Donolo taking over and Mr. Davey's departure.

But the rumours were consistently denied by Ms Fairbrother, who is also Mr. Davey's girlfriend.

Finally, at 9:40 p.m. a statement was released from the Liberal Leader, who had been in what was described as an "important meeting with Liberal MPs," about the changes to his office:

"I am pleased to announce the arrival of Peter Donolo, who has accepted the role of Chief of Staff. Mr. Donolo brings a wealth of experience to this role through his long service as the director of communications for Prime Minister Jean Chretien and in his leading role at 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. I know that we are a stronger Liberal Party because of his contribution and leadership."

But even the communications around Mr. Davey's departure were handled poorly. He had been encouraged to get out the statement to clear up the rumours. Liberals, he was told by senior advisers, deserved the facts.

"It was a bittersweet day," an Ottawa Ignateiff insider said. "While many staff had been brought into the team by Ian, many also knew there was a big need for change."

Warren Kinsella, the Ignatieff war-room strategist who had also worked for Mr. Chrétien, took about 20 Liberal staffers, some of whom were upset and worried, to a nearby pub to cheer them up.

He told them, according an insider, that "our job was to do our job."

The source added: "We listened to old Stones tunes and the mood was pretty good considering the circumstances."

 

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