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The Globe and Mail

Tories fear 'American-style confirmation hearing' for chief of staff

Onex Corp. managing director Nigel Wright speaks to reporters in Wichita, Kan., on June 17, 2005.

Larry W. Smith/larry smith The Globe and Mail

1. Reconciling business and public service. Stephen Harper's Conservatives are vigorously defending the Prime Minister's new chief of staff, arguing Nigel Wright is an ethical man who is divesting all of his public holdings into a blind trust and will recuse himself on any file that could hint at conflict of interest.

At the same time, the Tories are accusing Michael Ignatieff's Liberals - who are calling for an ethics probe and demanding Mr. Wright appear before a Commons committee to explain himself - of stooping to "any low to try to grab a headline."

The Harper team appears worried about the sustained attacks on Mr. Wright.

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In a Conservative Party memo, circulated to MPs and supporters Monday night, strategists argue the Liberals are misrepresenting the facts around Mr. Wright's employment. And these attacks will "ultimately discourage successful private sector people from serving in government."

Mr. Wright, is of course, a dealmaker who works for Onex Corp., one of the biggest equity firms in Toronto. His appointment has drawn controversy, especially the revelation that he is only on temporary leave from the big Bay Street firm.

The Tory memo confirms that Mr. Wright is joining the Prime Minister's Office in "early November" and will become chief of staff on Jan. 1. "Nigel Wright will take a leave from his current position at Onex," it says. "There is no artificial deadline. Let's wait for Mr. Wright to start his job before we attempt to predict when it will end."

And the opposition is also expressing concern over potential conflicts of interest over the business dealings Mr. Wright has had on numerous issues, including aerospace and defence. Liberal MP Wayne Easter wants him to appear before the Commons defence committee for what the Conservatives believe is an "American-style confirmation hearing."

The Liberals have been raising concerns over the sole-sourced contract and the government's $16-billion for the purchase of 65 Lockheed-Martin F35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. The Tory memo tries to debunk any suggestion of conflict.

"Referenced obliquely in the comments by Easter and his Coalition colleagues Dominic LeBlanc and Pat Martin is an insinuation that somehow because the firm that Nigel Wright works for at the moment (Onex) is involved with Lockheed Martin, that this is a conflict of interest," the Tories say. "They forget to mention that: (1) Onex and Mr. Wright are involved with a company which manufactures trainer aircraft, and sells them to various companies, including Lockheed Martin, (2) the choice of Lockheed Martin as a supplier to the Government of Canada was made by the multinational working group first joined by the prior, Liberal government in a competitive bidding process."

Conservative strategists assert: "There is absolutely no conflict of interest or any appearance of a conflict of interest."

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The memo adds that Mr. Wright has met with the Ethics Commissioner, will follow the parliamentary watchdog's rules - "including recusing himself as directed" - and will divest his public holdings into a blind trust.

2. How much does that plank cost? Michael Ignatieff is to make policy Tuesday morning, outlining significant funding to families providing care to aging or sick family members.

This, a senior Ignatieff official says, is to be a cornerstone of the Liberal election platform. The Liberals are keeping the exact details very quiet until Mr. Ignatieff's announcement.

However, the backdrop of his announcement is telling. The Liberal leader will be speaking from a private home in Gatineau, Que. (just across the river from Ottawa) where a family is providing care for a family member with cancer.

"Mr. Ignatieff has a personal connection to this issue," the official says. "He's spoken about his own family's experience caring for his mother when she had Alzheimer's - and this is one of the issues we heard from Canadians again and again during the Liberal Express [bus tour]this summer."

It remains to be seen whether the Liberal Leader will explain how he would pay for his new program.

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3. With friends like these... If you're a Conservative cabinet minister you know you're in big trouble when Sun Media - considered a supportive newspaper chain - is calling for your resignation. So watch yourself, Christian Paradis.

The Sun is demanding he head for the exit. "Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis needs to either resign - to fall on his sword like his senior aide did when caught subverting the ATI laws - or tell Canadians that his Conservative government couldn't care less about our legal right to know," the newspaper chain says in an editorial Tuesday. "Otherwise, one's no better than the other."

The issue involves access to information requests and what actually went out from the minister's office. Politicians or their aides are not allowed to tamper with the requests or the vetting of them. A senior aide to Mr. Paradis has resigned because of this and other staff members have been implicated.

However, the Sun is looking for more. "Having any politician slough off our ATI laws as minor inconveniences that can be blocked at the first whiff of trouble is nothing short of contempt," the paper says.

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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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