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Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears before the House ethics committee on Nov.2, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Nigel Wright, chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears before the House ethics committee on Nov.2, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Norman Spector

The best thing you'll read today on Nigel Wright Add to ...

There not being much commentary in English on Nigel Wright's committee appearance, here's a translation of a Le Devoir column by veteran Parliament Hill observer Manon Cornellier:

An impossible arrangement

When rumours began circulating this summer that Onex Managing Director Nigel Wright was to be appointed Prime Minister Stephen Harper's next chief of staff, the reaction was one of astonishment. Never before had someone at his level in the private sector defected to the highest levels of Government.

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Americans are accustomed to this sort of thing. All Presidents have at one point or another recruited senior executives from the private sector to manage a Department or to work in the White House. In Canada, things are different.

And, in the case of Onex, we're talking about a gigantic, sprawling entity - the largest employer in the country next to the Federal Government. Some 40 of its companies operate in almost all areas - from health to culture through aerospace and investments. And they generate billions of dollars in sales annually.

Moreover, Nigel Wright is not quitting his job at Onex. He's taking a leave of absence without pay that could extend to January 1, 2013. He says he's kept his soft landing spot so as not to lose some of his investments and earnings, but it means that he'll be maintaining a relationship with his employer.

How, in these circumstances, can he serve as number two in Ottawa without being in conflicts of interest? After all, the Federal Government, like Onex, has an effect on everything.

Mr. Wright tried to answer this question yesterday when he appeared before the access to information and ethics committee. However, despite his best efforts, he failed to persuade the opposition. No one questioned his competence or integrity, but no one believes either that the "ethical wall" will do the job.

***

This "ethical wall" was developed by Government officials, and was recently approved by the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to prevent such conflicts. By virtue of this arrangement, Mr. Wright will have to recuse and absent himself and be kept away from any document and any discussion that may affect the aerospace industry, taxation of the investment industry, the deductibility of interest costs in cross-border investments, direct relations between Onex and the Federal Government and, ultimately, any issue the Commissioner deems necessary to subject to these rules. A complex mechanism has been devised to ensure that the information related to these files doesn't make its way to him.

Still, Nigel Wright is confident he can assist the Prime Minister in his responsibilities, be it for policy development or in the federal budget. He's of this view because all the special mechanisms that have been devised do not in any way relate to "decisions or measures of general application." Which means, for example, that he will not to be disqualified from discussing copyright, despite the fact that Onex owns Indigo and Chapters.

All this is not the fault of Mr. Wright, who begins his new job on Monday. The decisions have been taken by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson who, as usual, has adopted the narrowest possible interpretation of the conflict of interest act. This would be a defensible position if we were talking about the owner of a small business or farm but, in the case of Onex, it's not hard to see the interest this conglomerate has in policies of general application.

***

There's nothing objectionable in the Prime Minister recruiting a businessman as his chief of staff, or in the Ethics Commissioner designing a mechanism to make this possible without the person losing his shirt financially. Few professions offer long unpaid leaves of absence to serve a Minister or to enter politics. In addition, with all the new rules restricting the post-employment activities of political staff, it's now more difficult to recruit experienced people to government.

To try this with someone of Nigel Wright's calibre could have been defensible had the person not worked for Onex. The company is too big to give Mr. Wright sufficient elbow room - all the more so because he is not really leaving Onex. And, even had he truly resigned, questions would have been raised whenever a decision that seemed to benefit Onex was made.

And this could happen at any time, as we saw yesterday at the Committee hearing. The Liberals showed up with a chart illustrating the extent of Onex's interests and the number of potentially affected departments. These included the ministries of health, heritage, industry, transport, defence, environment, finance, public works... On the other side [of the chart]were Cineplex, Indigo, Allison Transmission, Hawker Beechcraft, ResCare, Emergency Medical Services, RSI Home Products, The Warranty Group... Just a sample of the full list that is set out as an annex to his agreement with the Ethics Commissioner.

The Prime Minister's chief of staff is involved in all government decisions. Everything passes through his office. Mr. Wright swears he will be completely devoted to his job and that he is eager to serve the Government and Canadians. There is no reason to doubt this, but the reality is that he will almost always be in the hot seat, in an uncomfortable position or be handcuffed.

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