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Prime Minister's Office

Is Harper's new chief of staff here for a good time, not a long time? Add to ...

Stephen Harper's next chief of staff appears to be on temporary loan from one of Bay Street's largest private equity firms.

A statement this week from his employer, Onex Corp., suggests that Nigel Wright, who assumes his duties in the Prime Minister's Office on New Year's Day, is due back with Onex by the end of 2012.

Such a return ticket would oblige Mr. Wright to take special care while acting as senior aide to the Prime Minister to recuse himself from files that could affect Onex.

There are potentially many areas to avoid. A corporate-investment chart on Onex's website shows the breadth of companies that count the firm as an investor or asset manager, from aerospace to manufacturing to real estate.

Onex refuses to comment on a recent statement to the National Post, which quoted the company as saying Mr. Wright is on "temporary leave" and expected back within two years.

"Nigel will start work in Ottawa at the end of October and will return to Onex in 18 to 24 months to resume his leadership of the Aerospace and Defence and Energy verticals," the statement attributed to Onex management said.

Onex declined to elaborate. "The leave arrangements between Nigel Wright and Onex are a personal and private matter," spokeswoman Emma Thompson told The Globe.

Mr. Wright also declined all comment, referring the matter to the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr. Harper's office would not confirm the apparent time limit on Mr. Wright's new job. "Nigel Wright will join the staff in early November and will become the Prime Minister's chief of staff as of January 1, 2011," Mr. Harper's spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, said in an e-mail. "Let's wait for him to start his job before we attempt to predict when it will end."

The impression on Bay Street is that Mr. Wright's posting to the PMO will come to an end within two years. "Our sense is that Mr. Wright is taking a leave and that there is an intention to return to Onex," BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst Peter Sklar wrote in a late September note to clients.

"We note that the government is required to call an election no later than 2012 (unless defeated earlier) and we suspect that the timing of Mr. Wright's return to Onex could coincide with the next election," the analyst wrote.

Mr. Sklar rated the dealmaker's move a "negative development" for his private-sector employer. "Mr. Wright has been Onex's 'point person' for its investments within the aerospace sector, which has been an area of focus for the company," the analyst wrote.

The PMO noted that Mr. Wright will take care to ensure he conforms to all ethics rules and laws. "It goes without saying that Nigel will respect all of the rules that govern exempt staff and will respect the Conflict of Interest Act and other acts that govern political staff," Mr. MacDougall said.

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