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Dimitri Soudas, communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leaves Parliament Hill on June 1, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Dimitri Soudas, communications director for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leaves Parliament Hill on June 1, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Loyal voice of the PMO stepping down Add to ...

Stephen Harper's chief spokesman is quitting the Prime Minister's Office only a month after the Conservatives reached the promised land of majority government, ending a career where he personified the Tories' strong desire to control the message.

Dimitri Soudas, a 31-year-old Montrealer, can easily be counted among Mr. Harper's most loyal aides - one who had the authority to walk into the Conservative Leader's office unbidden or suggest revisions to the Prime Minister's plans.

Controversial but ever-powerful in Conservative circles, Mr. Soudas morphed into the public face of the Prime Minister's Office as director of communications, and his departure leaves a big hole for the Tories to fill.

He acted as the Prime Minister's top adviser on Quebec over the years, while being closely involved in a variety of other files. For example, Mr. Soudas played a key role vetting cabinet prospects before the May 18 ministerial shuffle.

In a pressure-cooker environment where staff turnover is fairly steady, Mr. Soudas was an exception. He worked for Mr. Harper for nine years - starting when his boss sat on the opposition benches - becoming one of his longest-serving aides along with Ray Novak, who's now principal secretary to the Prime Minister.

Like any savvy communicator, Mr. Soudas managed his exit so it wasn't entirely a surprise, telling reporters during the recent election campaign that he would be leaving within the year.

Things happened even faster, though - shortly after he accompanied Mr. Harper on an official trip to Mr. Soudas's ancestral homeland of Greece. The May 29 visit included a stop in Kalavryta, where Nazis killed Mr. Soudas's grandfather in 1943 as part of a notorious massacre.

On Wednesday, the top aide broke news of his departure to the Conservative caucus, announcing he would leave by Sept. 5 and move to Toronto with his wife and three kids.

"If there is a list of burnout jobs in politics, director of communications to the prime minister of Canada is probably near the top," Mr. Soudas told Tory MPs in a closed-door address.

He's already sold his Ottawa home and intends to find work in the private sector in Toronto.

One possible candidate to replace Mr. Soudas is Jason Lietaer, a former Harris government staffer who's also worked for the federal Conservatives - mostly recently on the 2011 campaign. One source said Mr. Lietaer, who lives in Toronto with his family, has been approached about the job. He could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Soudas started off in Montreal municipal politics, and brought intense loyalty and partisanship to his work in Ottawa. He was a hard worker, calling journalists at every time of day to offer comments, tips, quotes or, at times, stinging criticism.

When Mr. Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, Mr. Soudas was closely linked to the PMO's efforts to impose a greater control on communications, including drawing up a predetermined list of journalists who would ask questions of Mr. Harper.

He ruffled feathers in the party, especially on Quebec issues where he was seen to have more sway than a number of senior ministers from the province and had influence over appointments there. His departure has been rumoured in recent weeks, with a number of Conservative officials stating his retirement would have a positive impact on the party, especially in Quebec.

As one of Mr. Harper's main Quebec advisers, Mr. Soudas was part of a team that failed to expand on the Conservatives' 2006 breakthrough in the province that netted them 10 seats. The party stagnated there in the 2008 election and lost half its seats in Quebec last month.

Opposition parties called for Mr. Soudas's head during the last campaign over allegations that he repeatedly tried to interfere in the appointment of a new president at the autonomous Port of Montreal in 2007. According to recordings of telephone conversations that surfaced on the Internet, Mr. Soudas's candidate was also the preferred choice of senior members of Quebec's construction industry. The businessmen referred to Mr. Soudas in their discussions as the Conservative Party's "real boss" in Quebec and discussed the possibility of paying him off if he could be of help.

Mr. Harper quickly jumped to the defence of his director of communications, pointing out that the Port's board of directors eventually picked another candidate. Mr. Soudas rejected allegations of wrongdoing and denied receiving any payment.

The controversy was reminiscent of past incidents in which Mr. Soudas was seen as overextending his authority on delicate files.

When it came to patronage appointments, he was seen as being more supportive of the right-wing of the Conservative Party in Quebec: current and past supporters of the provincial Action Démocratique du Québec. That left some supporters of the Quebec Liberal Party and former Progressive Conservatives feeling unwelcome in Mr. Harper's government.

One long-time Conservative supporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Soudas's departure will likely convince some party members to get back to work in Quebec.

"A lot of people were sitting on their hands while he was there," the Conservative said.

The Conservatives made significant inroads in Quebec in 2006, winning 10 seats with their promise to put an end to the "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces. However, the party stagnated in 2008 as the Conservatives let a controversy over small cuts to cultural programs fester, giving a huge leg up to the Bloc Québécois.

In last month's ballot, the Bloc crumbled, but the Conservatives were unable to capitalize, losing half of their seats at the hands of the NDP.

Through it all, Mr. Soudas has seemed invulnerable to outside criticism, enjoying the continuous support of Mr. Harper.

During a trip to Italy in 2009, the Prime Minister got into hot water for stating that then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had maligned Canada's international standing in an interview on CTV. In fact, Mr. Soudas had misread a news report and wrongly relayed the comments that had been made by a former bureaucrat.

At a summit on climate change in Copenhagen a few months later, Mr. Soudas falsely accused well-known activist Steven Guilbeault of creating a fake news release stating that Ottawa would make major concessions on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Both cases highlight an aggressive streak in Mr. Soudas, a characteristic that was never far from the surface as he did his job.

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