When a rush of foreign takeover bids for Canadian companies created new pressure for a political response, business executives could count on at least one thing: One of the men shaping Ottawa’s reaction was steeped in deal making.
As chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, Nigel Wright had a position of unique influence over the delicate issues that arose as the government weighed the virtues and drawbacks of those transactions – including the biggest foreign investment in Chinese history, the takeover of Nexen Inc. by CNOOC Ltd.
Mr. Wright resigned on Sunday, just days after the disclosure that he had written a personal cheque for $90,000 to Senator Mike Duffy to help him repay erroneously claimed expenses. That decision removed from the centre of power a man for whom big business and big deals were familiar territory.
“He brought a unique, valued and very timely perspective – given the focus on the economy – to the intersection of business and politics, and the loss of that insight will be hard to replace,” said Goldy Hyder, the president of lobbyist group Hill and Knowlton Inc., which represented CNOOC on the $15.1-billion (U.S.) deal that Ottawa eventually approved.
“As much as any one person can influence the policy directions of a prime minister and a government, Nigel Wright was perhaps the most impactful prime minister’s chiefs of staff we have seen in some time.”
Mr. Wright, a Harvard-educated lawyer, had gone to Ottawa from Onex Corp., where he had brokered substantial deals as managing director. His work ethic was already the stuff of legend before he began his time in the capital, where he took a uniquely active role, Mr. Hyder said.
He assumed the chief of staff title on Jan. 1, 2011, less than two months after the Conservative government blocked the $40-billion (Canadian) takeover of Potash Corp. by BHP Billiton Ltd. A year and half later, Malaysian giant Petronas announced a then-$5.5-billion takeover of Progress Energy Resources Corp.; less than a month after that, CNOOC made its bid for Nexen.
Mr. Wright was a key architect of the Harper government’s decision to allow those two deals but place restrictions on future deals for oil sands assets by state-owned corporations.
Ian Telfer, the chairman of Goldcorp Inc., called Mr. Wright’s departure unfortunate. Canada, he said, “has lost the input from a great representative of the business community.”
Ottawa has wrestled with negotiations on sensitive free-trade agreements with Europe and Pacific nations, a sluggish economy, large budget deficits and, more recently, the choice of a new Bank of Canada governor. Having Mr. Wright there provided industry a sense of relief, said David Emerson, the former Conservative cabinet minister who also led banking and forestry companies before his current service on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service.
“He was a very reassuring presence,” Mr. Emerson said. “You would know that the prime minister would have at least one adviser around him that would really understand global business and the reaction of global business in terms of public policy decision-making. And usually those types of people are pretty cool customers, and are not prone to making emotional decisions in a hurry.”
Yet that experience may also have had its drawbacks. Lawson Hunter, a lawyer with Stikeman Elliott, has sat across the negotiating table from Mr. Wright, whom he called a “class act.” But Mr. Hunter faulted the PMO in recent years for being too “transactional,” and approaching issues as problems to be solved, rather than long-term policy to be written.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “They should be more ideological. They should be more true to their values. And I don’t think [Mr. Wright] brought it to them.”
Mr. Wright’s background – his professional expertise ranges from work done on the Confederation Bridge to PEI to a central role in a number of high-profile aviation deals with Onex – was highly unusual for the position.
His immediate predecessor, Guy Giorno, is a lobbyist and lawyer. Before that, Ian Brodie was a professor of political science and a Conservative Party operative. Tim Murphy was a politician and lawyer. Eddie Goldenberg was a lawyer and long-time political adviser. The late Jean Pelletier was a journalist, mayor and political operative – although he, too, spent time as a private sector executive before leading Jean Chrétien’s office starting in 1993.
Mr. Wright’s senior business background is rare for top-level political operatives “because they have to give up quite a bit to go into government,” said Jack Mintz, an economist who leads the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and is a director with Imperial Oil Ltd., a major foreign-owned oil sands producer.
But, he said, an intimate knowledge of the workings of business is useful both in developing policy that makes economic sense, but also in spotting self-interested proposals from lobbyists.
“You can actually shut down a lot of bad policy ideas that way,” he said.
Mr. Emerson, meanwhile, warned the controversy that sparked Mr. Wright’s resignation could frighten away business leaders who might consider similar career changes.
“Others who might be contemplating serving through public life may be disinclined when they see what happens,” he said. “It would have been better if Nigel had stayed.”