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Harper signals bold change of pace with Bay Street chief of staff

Nigel Wright, shown in December of 2004, is leaving Onex Corp. for the Prime Minister's Office.

Tibor Kolley/Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

By choosing Bay Street executive Nigel Wright as his next chief of staff, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken a bold political risk: selecting a right-hand man with little political or election campaign experience, but who has one of the finest business minds in the country.

Mr. Wright, 47, will be replacing Guy Giorno by the end of the year, The Globe and Mail revealed on Friday. Critics both within and outside the party blame Mr. Giorno for the troubles that have plagued the Tories throughout 2010.

"This is a huge coup for the Conservative government," said John Walsh, president of the Conservative Party of Canada. "I think Nigel is one of the brightest and best Canada has to offer."

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He certainly is a change of pace. Mr. Giorno and Ian Brodie, Mr. Harper's first chief of staff, were partisan political animals.

But Mr. Wright is a dealmaker, one of the best around. At Onex Corp, a well-known Toronto investment firm, he specialized in purchasing underperforming or undervalued assets in industries such as aerospace, whipping them into shape then selling them for a profit. He was considered a prime contender to replace Onex founder Gerald Schwartz, should he ever retire.

He has a political streak, however, working as a teenager to help unseat Joe Clark as leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1983, then serving as an aide to then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, before quitting to pursue law degrees at Harvard and the University of Toronto.

Mr. Wright first became acquainted with Mr. Harper in the early 1990s, when the young Bay Street lawyer encountered the young Reform MP. Each likes and respects the other, and they have remained in contact since.

Those who know both men say Mr. Wright is one of the few people that Mr. Harper will listen to because he is one of the few who Mr. Harper believes is as smart as he is.

By all accounts an open, engaging, even charming man, the Prime Minister's new most senior adviser is thought to be well to the right on economic issues, but with no interest at all in social conservatism. He is unmarried, a dedicated runner, and has a prodigious appetite for work.

"The biggest question is how is he going to work with Harper and how will Harper work with him," said Greg Lyle, a friend who is managing director of Innovative Research Group, a Toronto-based consulting firm.

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Mr. Wright, he said, is less partisan than Mr. Harper's other advisers. "I think that can be good," he said, "because, arguably, some of the biggest mistakes the government has made is when they've gotten overly partisan."

The appointment confirms that the Conservatives are determined to make economic issues virtually the sole priority over the coming months, as Canada struggles to escape the gravitational pull of the ailing American economy.

"He understands the global economy, understands Canada's place in it, and understands what we have to do in order to succeed," said a senior government official who asked not to be identified.

Changing the guard at such a time also suggests the Tories really would prefer to avoid an election until well into 2011.

"If someone wants to take from this that we would rather focus on the economy than on an election, they'd be right," the official said.

The appointment may raise some eyebrows among the more ideologically fervent members of the party. The Conservatives railed against "Toronto elites" trying to tell the rest of the country what to do, during the fight over the long-gun registry.

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But they don't come more Toronto or more elite than Nigel Wright, with his Trinity College degree and his Bay Street office address.

Those who know him well insist that his negotiating skills will overcome any internal resistance, even as his formidable abilities to grasp the complexities of businesses he acquired for Onex will help flatten the political learning curve.

Mr. Lyle said "it will be interesting" to watch how Mr. Wright's Bay Street experience meshes with Ottawa's political culture, "how much the culture will change him, and how much he will change the culture."

When contacted, Mr. Wright had no comment on his appointment, saying it was "not part of the job description."

Editor's note An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Greg Lyle's consulting firm. This version has been corrected.

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About the Authors

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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