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The bumpy ride from boardroom to backroom

Nigel Wright is shown as managing director of Onex Corp on Dec.20, 2004.

Tibor Kolley/Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Gwyn Morgan's advice to Stephen Harper: do not allow Nigel Wright anywhere near a Commons committee.

He speaks from experience.

Mr. Morgan, a successful businessman and retired oil executive, believes if anyone else is exposed to the kind of "fiasco" and "put-up job" he had to endure, no business person in their right mind would ever put their name forward for public service in Ottawa.

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This, he says, would be "a sad state of affairs.

"… if that kind of opposition sniping of a guy like Nigel can sustain itself, it really means that we have taken out from any kind of public service in Ottawa people who have been successful in business."

Mr. Wright, a successful Bay Street executive, is to become the Prime Minister's next chief of staff, joining the office in November and taking over as chief on Jan. 1.

But his business ties - he is a managing director at Onex Corp. - have provoked an outcry from the opposition, which argues that he will have to spend most of his time waiting outside rooms where decisions are being made because he has conflicts of interest on so many files.

The Liberals have suggested they want Mr. Wright to appear before the Commons defence committee to discuss conflicts in the areas of aerospace and defence. The Tories have said the Liberals want to subject him to an "American-style confirmation hearing."

Enter Mr. Morgan, who knows exactly what that's like and the chilling effect it could have on other business people.

In May, 2006, Mr. Morgan was subjected to two hours of grilling, insults and accusations of racism during an appearance before a House of Commons committee.

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Hand-picked by the Prime Minister as his candidate to head the new federal appointments commission, Mr. Morgan faced a so-called confirmation hearing. It did not go well; the opposition-dominated committee rejected Mr. Morgan's appointment.

As angry as Stephen Harper was, he had no choice but to abandon his candidate because he had promised these types of hearings as a way to change how appointments were made.

Mr. Wright, however, is a slightly different case. As an official in the Prime Minister's Office, he is not subject to the kind of rejection Mr. Morgan faced.

Regardless, the opposition furor over his appointment is provoking controversy and suspicions over Mr. Wright's motivations for joining the PMO, given that Onex has said that he's in the post only for a couple of years.

And the opposition has vowed not to back down.

Mr. Wright is, so far, not talking or defending himself.

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But Mr. Morgan says having a senior businessman in such a position is "exactly the kind of thing we should hope for as Canadians.

"[Business people]actually know how to run something and have shown commitment in a lot of different ways," he suggests. "In my case … I was going to be giving back to my country after having been successful in business, and doing it for a dollar a year."

Indeed, Mr. Morgan sees a Parliament Hill populated with people who have little experience in the real world of business; many are professional politicos.

A business person who figures he or she can "help in terms of the future of the country … is suspect," Mr. Morgan says.

He notes, too, that former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin had run a big shipping company, which would have had interests in all sorts of areas, triggering conflicts. His holdings were put into a blind trust. Mr. Wright is doing the same.

Meanwhile, Mr. Morgan says that Mr. Wright would be well aware of what any committee would want from him. "He knows the agenda would have nothing to do with his qualifications. It would have everything to do with partisan politics," he says.

Besides, Mr. Morgan has faith that the Prime Minister would never again subject someone to a committee after the first experience.

"Unfortunately, I guess it goes with minority politics," he says, reflecting on his adventures at committee. "It was all about politics and not about what was good for the country."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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