Skip to main content
politics insider

Simon DoyleFred L

Mike McNair, the adviser who helped Stéphane Dion write his Green Shift policy, will be key to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plans for a price on carbon.

Mr. McNair, named in November as Mr. Trudeau's director of policy, is assembling a team in the PMO to research and co-ordinate the government's most important policy questions, such as providing fiscal stimulus and how to price carbon.

Mr. McNair, a Mississauga kid who turns 36 in February and did his graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Columbia University, might be called another young, over-achieving member of the Trudeau team, someone representing the Liberal government's generational change. He calls himself a "Nerd, wonk, idealist" on Twitter.

Need to know more about Ottawa's staffing? Meet the chiefs of staff, each Liberal minister's most senior adviser.

People who know him say he is loyal, smart, and strong on parliamentary procedure and government regulation. He aligns policy, strategy and tactics, thinking ahead several moves, they say.

Mr. McNair is close to Mr. Dion, having helped him when he was Liberal leader with the Green Shift policy, a failed election proposal to use tax schemes to draw consumers and businesses away from fossil fuels. It is probably a main reason he refers to Mr. Dion as "an old friend," as he did on Twitter election day. It makes Mr. McNair not only close to Mr. Dion in his role as Foreign Affairs Minister, but also as chair of Mr. Trudeau's cabinet committee on environment, climate change and energy.

One senior government official acknowledged that Mr. McNair's policy experience is probably the most extensive on climate-change economics. He understands that "if we're going to be successful on the economy, we have to be successful on the environment," the official said. "He's first and foremost a very strong listener."

The "listener" characterization is used frequently. Mr. McNair engrosses himself in all sides before coming up with a position, say people who know him, an approach the Prime Minister considers an asset.

Listening and learning from those he disagrees with is something Mr. McNair did even in his undergrad days at Queen's University. He was involved with the Young Liberals, combining what he was learning in academics with student politics, and enjoyed debate.

"He was always looking for that different perspective," says Steven Maynard, a professor of Canadian history at Queen's who taught Mr. McNair. He and Dr. Maynard often disagreed on issues, with his teacher typically challenging him from the left. "He was completely into political debate, and not just to make his point, but to really listen to what someone else might bring to the table."

He has seen a bit of the old Liberal guard and been in the trenches, having served as policy adviser to both Mr. Dion and former party leader Michael Ignatieff during their drubbings at the polls. After the Liberals' diminution to third place in the 2011 election, Mr. McNair went to work as a manager for Deloitte in Toronto, although politics and policy drew him back to Ottawa in 2013 under Mr. Trudeau.

People who know him say he has the PM's ear and trust, partly for their history given that Mr. McNair first gave briefings to Mr. Trudeau well before his run for the Liberal leadership. In another sign of his influence, Mr. McNair's penmanship was all over the party's 2015 election platform.

"Mike has been a constant and resilient policy voice for the party through different leaders and he brings a sense of historical understanding to policy discussions at a critical time for government," government relations consultant Jacquie LaRocque, who has known Mr. McNair professionally for a number of years, said via e-mail. "He was obviously a key thinker behind the platform – not on the sidelines, but really involved – which will drive all of the government's planning for the foreseeable future. That's key and extremely relevant to his value now."

Mr. McNair and his team in the PMO will co-ordinate policy with cabinet offices, the cabinet committees, and Mr. Trudeau's most senior advisers, including Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, with whom he worked under Mr. Trudeau in opposition. Mr. Butts is another senior official with credit on the environmental front, having previously served as head of World Wildlife Fund Canada.

The Prime Minister's Office declined an interview request on Mr. McNair's behalf. It is unclear who will be on his policy team, although the federal lobbyist registry indicates that Justin To, a former principal with JDU Analytics in Ottawa, is a policy adviser in the PMO who has met with lobbyists. The Hill Times also reported that Zoë Caron, co-author of Global Warming for Dummies, had joined the PMO on policy, as well as Liberal staffer Simon Robertson.

Outside of work, Mr. McNair is a Toronto Blue Jays fan and a father. Things one can learn from his Twitter feed: He played baseball as teenager, once hitting a home run out of Labatt Park in London, Ont., and he has two young children with wife Alexis, one of them a baby girl born in December.

Having done his time in opposition, Mr. McNair is now in the big leagues advising a prime minister, and is expected to be working with the provinces and territories before a first ministers' meeting in March.

As Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in December: "What is very clear is that we are going to put a price on carbon, [and] that we know that we need to move to a low-carbon economy. And we're going to figure out the tools to do that in conjunction with the provinces and territories and also the aboriginal leaders."