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Harper's Bay Street PMO chief sparks ethics debate

Onex Corp president Gerald Schwartz chats with managing director Nigel Wright prior to an appearance before a Senate committee in Ottawa on Nov 2, 1999.


Stephen Harper's decision to recruit his next chief of staff from Bay Street has ignited a debate over whether senior business executives can serve a political tour of duty in Ottawa before returning to their corner-office jobs.

Mr. Harper recently tapped Onex Corp. executive Nigel Wright to take over from Guy Giorno as head of the Prime Minister's Office. It's a temporary loan from one of the biggest private equity players in Toronto, which has granted their prized executive a temporary leave of absence.

Opposition parties are already mounting an effort to bloody and bruise the Wright appointment, arguing the Onex staffer will face numerous conflicts of interest because of his past and future career with a buyout firm that has sprawling holdings beyond the aerospace file he managed.

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The Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP are expected Thursday to pass a motion at the Commons ethics committee calling the long-time Onex executive onto the carpet. They want him to explain how he'll avoid corporate conflicts as the top Conservative political staffer in Ottawa.

It's rare for a prime minister to appoint a chief of staff with such an accomplished business record. For 20 years, chiefs of staff to prime ministers have been plucked from the ranks of political staffers, lawyers and bureaucrats - and occasionally from academia or the diplomatic corps.

Mr. Wright's defenders argue that it's unfair to discriminate against business executives who choose to enter public life.

"Are we going to recruit from monasteries?" said Derek Burney, a former diplomat and one-time chief of staff to Brian Mulroney.

"It's hard enough to get people to perform public service without going on witch hunts."

He said he's certain Mr. Wright will be able to arrange his affairs to avoid conflicts. The PMO said some of the Onex executive's investments will be placed in a blind trust.

Onex has refused to comment on the details of Mr. Wright's leave arrangement but a statement from the company obtained by the National Post in late September said he would "return to Onex in 18 to 24 months" to resume his job there.

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News also broke Monday that Mr. Wright is severing some corporate ties. In filings dated late September, he informed U.S. regulators he's resigning from the boards of two aerospace companies partly owned by Onex: Spirit AeroSystems and Hawker Beechcraft.

NDP MP Pat Martin said it's hard to imagine how Mr. Wright will avoid conflicts when his corporate employer has such varied interests.

"He would have to recuse himself any time a subject arose that concerned any sector Onex is involved in," he said.

"Onex is so big that he would be outside the cabinet room recusing himself more than he would be inside the cabinet room," Mr. Martin said.

"It's an untenable situation."

The Prime Minister's Office accused the Liberals, who are leading the charge against Mr. Wright, of being biased against recruiting staff from Bay Street.

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"The Liberals are just interested in trying to discourage and intimidate private-sector people from serving in government, which would be unfortunate," said spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

Liberal MP Siobhan Cody said Mr. Wright has to assure MPs that he can perform the job as chief of staff without tripping over conflicts related to Onex holdings.

"There's no reason why this government shouldn't be open and transparent about this."

Opposition MPs can normally outvote the government on Commons committees if all opposition parties vote as a group.

The PMO said there's no deadline for Mr. Wright to return to Onex.

"Mr. Wright's public holdings will be divested into a blind trust and his private holdings will be declared to the Ethics Commissioner," Mr. MacDougall said.

"These are the same strict rules that govern the conduct of ministers of the Crown."

Opposition parties suggest Mr. Wright could have a conflict of interest over Ottawa's decision to purchase 65 F-35 fighters at a cost of $16-billion, including maintenance

They say a company in which Onex has a stake is one of the suppliers to the F-35 project.

The Tories, however, reject the notion Mr. Wright will have any say in this matter.

"That's baloney," Industry Minister Tony Clement said of the opposition charges on the F-35.

"He's never been involved and he's not involved in this," he said in an interview. "There's nothing to influence. We've already made the decision."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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