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Jeffrey Simpson

The Wright stuff: the Onex guy and the PMO Add to ...

For those with a taste for cheap irony, consider the appointment of Nigel Wright as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff.

A few weeks ago, one of Mr. Harper's favourite pit-bull ministers, John Baird, was mocking the Liberal and NDP leaders for being from, and catering to, the "Toronto elites," a presumably bad-apple group out of touch with ordinary Canadians.

So where does Mr. Wright come from? Top executive at the Onex Corp. Address: Bay Street, downtown Toronto. That would be "Toronto elite" by any standard. Over to you, Mr. Baird.

But enough of the cheap irony. Mr. Wright's appointment is significant in a number of ways.

Mr. Wright, on loan from Onex, is a button-down kind of guy, unlike the partisan brawler Guy Giorno, whom he replaces. Under Mr. Giorno, a whole lot of things went wrong in communications, overall strategy and daily tactics. It appeared to outsiders as if he abetted the dark, partisan, sometimes Nixonian, aspects of Mr. Harper's character, rather than trying to push back against them.

For some months now, the government has been throwing things into the public domain without coherent explanations, such as the long-form census fiasco. The Conservatives managed to get offside with veterans for a while, get caught flat-footed by the Quebec City arena deal and lose all benefit of playing host to the G8/G20 summits with wildly excessive spending. For a government whose boss likes to micromanage everything, and who prides himself on long-term strategic thinking, recent months have not gone well.

Indeed, apart from spinning out the last of the stimulus announcements and banging the drum about "tough on crime," it's a government that doesn't seem to know where it's going, or wants to go. And there's no sense it knows how to put a "4" in front of its polling numbers, as in 40 or better, and prefers, instead, to irritate enough moderate Canadians to remain mired in the low 30s. It's small-tent conservatism, satisfying for those inside but not very attractive to those beyond.

Mr. Wright's appointment (scurrilously attacked by the Liberals in the House of Commons on Tuesday) underscores how rapidly senior staff turn over in the Prime Minister's Office. The minority government is part of the answer, because the incessant partisanship of minorities, the daily brinksmanship and the short-term planning horizons combine to make for long, draining days.

Another part of the answer is that Mr. Harper can be, shall we say, a demanding taskmaster who can be thoughtful and charming but also given to tantrums and flashes of very unpleasant behaviour, especially if little things go wrong. So the pressure is constant not to screw up inside a PMO where, ultimately, everything is decided by the Prime Minister himself.

Mr. Wright's big internal challenge will be to rebuild some experience in the PMO and to bring more gravitas to ministers' offices. The PMO has lost most of the steady hands who arrived with Mr. Harper. It's got too many short-term thinkers and jejune partisans, part of the reason being that the Accountability Act scares off experienced people because of the long period after government service during which they can have no contact with government. In this, as in so many other aspects of that overwrought act, the government has become its own worst enemy.

Mr. Wright arrives as the government actually has to pull in the reins of spending. This is what Conservatives are supposed to do, and usually what they promise but seldom deliver. The Harper Conservatives were big spenders before the recession, and huge spenders during it.

Now, they're supposed to restrict government spending somewhat, and Mr. Wright will have a voice at the table for these decisions. By reputation, he's supposed to be a real fiscal conservative, not like the rhetorical ones who've been governing Ottawa. Having been the crown princes of big spending before and during the recession, the Conservatives now need a new narrative line in which they become the frugal defenders of the public purse, while the other parties are the reckless spenders.

There have been some superb chiefs of staff over the years to successful prime ministers: Jim Coutts to Pierre Trudeau, Derek Burney to Brian Mulroney, Jean Pelletier to Jean Chrétien. Mr. Wright might study what made them successful, and write a memo to self.

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