This week, the PMO comes under new management

Harper's office is in good hands with the arrival of chief of staff Nigel Wright

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Prime Minister's Office is under new management this week with the arrival of Nigel Wright as the chief of staff, succeeding Guy Giorno.

Every time there's a change at the top in the PMO, there's an opportunity for a fresh start by the PM in the company town called Ottawa - from the public service to his own caucus, from the wise owls of the consulting class to the wise guys of the media.

Wright is Stephen Harper's third chief in just under five years, which is not unusual in the most demanding burnout job in the capital. His predecessors, Giorno and the cerebral Ian Brodie, were there for just under two and a half years each, about average tenure. (Brian Mulroney had five chiefs of staff in nine years.)

There is an opportunity for a new beginning in tone, but also, more importantly, in substance. In tonal terms, the Giorno PMO was a hunkered-down and narrowly focused operation. In substantial terms, it was consumed by tactics, to the detriment of strategy.

The Giorno PMO was excellent at process management. Important and complex files -the H1N1 vaccine rollout in 2008, the GM bailout in 2009, Haitian earthquake relief in 2010 -were impressively managed.

But the decision to end party campaign subsidies that triggered the parliamentary crisis of 2008, the prorogation uproar of 2009 and the long-form-census controversy of 2010 were all self-inflicted wounds by Harper and the Giorno PMO. Every one of these events contributed to Harper's trust deficit, and every one of them was an important policy decision announced without any communications plan or narrative to support it.

And these episodes were, as the saying goes, all tactics and no strategy. Tactics are a short game, about forcing turnovers by the opponent and keeping possession of the ball, especially in a minority House. Strategy is a long game, about seeing your way down the field.

Harper is very good on tactics, but occasionally his fascination with it gets the better of him. Or as one of his former senior advisers once put it: "Stephen Harper doesn't need help to get to the dark side."

What he does need occasionally is someone to say to him: "Sir, that's a very bad idea."

This will be one of the tests for Wright. It's not so much a question of talking back to the boss as of giving him the straight goods.

On a more important level, the challenge for Wright will be to take Harper out of the short game and put him into the long one. In other words, to help Harper take his game to a higher level.

Jan. 24 marks five years since the election of this government. Next month will be the fifth anniversary of its taking office, on Feb. 6. In the next few weeks there will be no shortage of five-year report cards in the media.

The Harper government gets generally good marks on competence, but hasn't been known for big ideas.

In its first five years, it's been a transactional rather than a transformational government. That's partly because of the constraints of operating in two minority parliaments, although that didn't prevent Lester B. Pearson from being a transformational prime minister. In two minority Houses, with John Diefenbaker breathing down his neck, Pearson left a legacy that included the Canadian flag, the Auto Pact, medicare and the Canada-Quebec Pension Plans.

The only transforming piece of legislation on Harper's record is the Accountability Act of 2006, which, with its five-year post-employment ban on lobbying, is arguably unconstitutional as an unreasonable limit on freedom of association under Article 2 of the Charter of Rights. It's certainly one of the reasons Harper has difficulty attracting good people to government.

Nigel Wright is an exception to that rule. He's already made a lot of money as managing director of Onex Corp. Gerry Schwartz and his Onex colleagues have an enviable reputation for creating value and improving the culture of the companies they first take over and then make over. Wright has been an important part of those turnaround stories, significantly without making any enemies in 15 years on Bay St.

But he's not coming in entirely from the outside. A quarter-century ago, as a young law student, he worked as executive assistant to Brian Mulroney's senior policy adviser, Charles Mc-Millan, where he learned the system from top to bottom.

In that PMO, and everywhere he's worked since, Wright has always been part of the solution. Stephen Harper is in very good hands.

 
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