A month after being named Dalton McGuinty’s chief of staff, David Livingston has put his own stamp on the Premier’s office.
A series of personnel changes announced on Tuesday by Mr. Livingston, formerly the head of Infrastructure Ontario and before that an executive with TD Bank, will make for a different power structure – one that seems more businesslike and systems-oriented than what Mr. McGuinty has typically relied upon during nearly nine years in power.
To date, the line of authority has been a little ambiguous. The chief of staff has been the most powerful person in the office, but he has been counterbalanced by a principal secretary who has had direct access to the Premier, and a big hand in policy and strategy decisions. For much of Mr. McGuinty’s first term, and the early stages of his second, that was Gerald Butts; for nearly four years, it’s been Jamison Steeve.
With the voluntary departure of Mr. Steeve, who like former chief of staff Chris Morley was set to leave last fall but stuck around for the early stages of minority government, that position has been eliminated. Rather than a new principal secretary, there will be two new deputy chiefs of staff: John Brodhead, who will oversee the policy side, and Laura Miller, who will be responsible for “strategy and communication.”
Along with two existing deputy chiefs, Dave Gene and Deb Roberts, Mr. Brodhead and Ms. Miller will form a layer under Mr. Livingston. In theory, that should make for clear lines of responsibility and cohesive management. But to be familiar with the inner workings of Mr. McGuinty’s government is to know there are a couple of big caveats.
One is that the ambiguity around the power structure is as much about who’s outside the Premier’s office as inside it. Those in government are known to complain that much of the best access to Mr. McGuinty, and strongest influence over his decisions, belongs to a circle of confidants that most prominently includes his campaign manager (and former chief of staff) Don Guy and his strategist brother Brendan McGuinty.
It’s hard to argue with their political instincts, given that the Liberals have won three straight elections, but this approach can be incongruous with good policy development. And it remains to be seen whether Mr. Livingston, who according to several sources was not the first choice of some of those outside advisers, will be able to trump them when he needs to.
The other concern is about the considerable hole that Mr. Steeve will leave.
Particularly with a minority legislature that threatens to plunge Ontario into perpetual election mode, the departing principal secretary has by most accounts been the strongest advocate for balancing political interests with long-term policy goals – a role that has led to conflict with some of the other advisers. While there has still been no shortage of short-term thinking, it would have been worse without him.
Mr. Brodhead, who came up through the Premier’s office policy shop, is supposed to help fill the void, but that could be difficult without direct access to Mr. McGuinty. So it will depend largely on just how policy-focused Mr. Livingston is willing to be, and how much he is willing to advocate for political risks that others would prefer to avoid.
On paper, at least, Mr. Livingston has as much power as anyone who has ever worked for Mr. McGuinty. Now, we’ll find out how he tries to use it.