Andrew Steele

Nigel Wright is cut from different cloth

The Globe and Mail

Onex president Gerald Schwartz chats with Nigel Wright prior to an appearance before a Senate committee in Ottawa on Nov 2, 1999. (TOM HANSON/The Canadian Press)

The chief of staff to the Prime Minister is just one role on the very large team that is the Conservatives. One appointment is not a game changer.

In an election year, especially with a minority government, it's normal for the campaign team to assume more of the strategic agenda and the PMO to become more managerial and less visionary. That is all still true.

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But the appointment of Nigel Wright as chief of staff is worth some serious discussion, because it is a very shrewd move by the Prime Minister.

Anyone who has worked on Bay Street in a serious capacity can tell you Nigel Wright is smart, hardworking and likeable. Anyone who gets politics can tell you we are heading into a challenging year for all governments, and one with huge perils for the Prime Minister.

Winning an election in those conditions is the campaign team's brief. Getting the PM through those challenges so he is in a position to win that election is now Mr. Wright's brief.

Basically, the Prime Minister's chief of staff has three major challenges.

1. The Prime Minister must focus his energies - in public and in private - almost exclusively to the economy.

As I wrote last week, incumbents across the continent are in peril because of the lingering impacts of the recession: unemployment primarily, but also the threats of inflation, interest rates, credit crunches, real estate devaluation and sovereign debt.

Only by focusing constantly on improving the economic lot of citizens will any government survive. Keeping any prime minister focused on the long-term and not on the 1,000 crises that erupt every day is a challenge for anyone, even with a PM whose natural inclination is toward the economic.

2. The Prime Minister only gets to focus on the economy if all the other issues are managed down.

That means a chief of staff has to drive ministers to manage down the key challenges in their portfolios - everything from Afghanistan to food safety to an RCMP inquiry - to ensure they don't wind up on the Prime Minister's desk.

Don't underestimate how hard this task will be. It means ensuring ministers can knock the ball away on the first go, so the PM never needs to bat clean up. That requires trust, flexibility and constant preparation.

3. The only message out of Ottawa most days will need to be about the economy and what the Prime Minister is doing about it.

This is perhaps the hardest task of all. The national press gallery is attuned to the "story of the day," usually political and often trivial.

Look how much ink the census issue, the gun registry, Helena Geurgis and Rahim Jaffer, or the Tamil refugee issue took up over the past six months. Compare that to the amount of media time discussing the economy, what Canadians consistently say is one of their two top issues, along with health care.

To leap over the national press gallery and speak to Canadians, the PMO will need to constantly get the Prime Minister out of Ottawa and into settings where the economy is the topic to drive media coverage regionally, and rebounding into national coverage. It will require redefining as many issues as possible into economic ones. And ideally, the PMO will be able to portray some of those issues as showing the Conservatives on the side of Canadians, while the opposition are standing in the way.

So what of Mr. Wright and his ability to manage this agenda? For starters, his background is unusual. World-class financial dealmakers are not the normal cloth from which one cuts a political aide.

Since Jack Pickersgill invented the role for Mackenzie King, Canadian chiefs of staff have been smart political operators like Jean Pelletier or Tim Murphy or Hugh Segal or Marc Lalonde or Tom Kent. Often lawyers. Sometimes academics. Sometimes seconded civil servants.

The past top advisers to Mr. Harper fit this mold, with academics like Tom Flanagan or Ian Brodie, or a lawyer like Guy Giorno.

Mr. Wright has a very different background from the rest. At Onex, he travelled the world undertaking very high level negotiations with government and business leaders. He oversaw several of Onex's acquisitions, particularly in aerospace. He acquired a reputation on Bay Street as someone with an immense capacity to get things done.

One would have to go back to Derek Burney - an accomplished diplomat - to find someone who was as familiar with rubbing elbows with the internationally powerful as Mr. Wright. One would have to go back to fellow blogger Norman Spector - an accomplished senior civil servant in Ontario, British Columbia and federally - to find someone with the management experience. One would have to go back to Stanley Hartt - a partner at Stikeman and future chairman of Macquarie Capital Markets - for someone as deeply rooted in the business community.

That the three skill sets are combined in one high-flying, business managing, former PMO staffer who is a director of the Manning Centre is extraordinary. The fact he took the pay cut to take the job, more so.

For the past several months, there has been some drift from the Harper government as events threatened to overtake the government's economic agenda. However, any hopes the opposition had that the PM was taking his eye off the ball should be dashed.

Mr. Harper is clearly aware that the economy is his biggest threat. With Nigel Wright, he is making a move that continues to address that threat.