The problem with the PMO

Harper’s real issue is his own office, writes Peter White, and no cabinet shuffle will fix the problem

Peter White
<p>Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks after announcing his new cabinet in a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Has the Harper government, as charged by MP Brent Rathgeber when he quit the Tory caucus in mid-June, now morphed into what it once mocked?

Yes and no.

True, the government appears secretive, hyper-partisan, prone to making weird appointments (our new ambassador to Jordan was the head of the PM’s security detail), and often the reverse of open and transparent.

But despite compiling enemies lists (Chrétien did it too), appointing to the Senate “objective” journalists who morph into embarrassing Tory hacks, and being politically dead in Quebec, the Harper government is generally managing the country well.

Unless the economy tanks (unlikely), Stephen Harper is on course to win another majority (again without Quebec) by dint of the old Bill Davis formula of keeping the opposition about equally split between the Liberals and the NDP.

Harper’s problem is more subtle, and potentially more serious than transitory “scandals.”

The PM’s problem is the PMO – his own office. No cabinet shuffle will fix this problem.

The Harper PMO, and also Conservative Party headquarters under Harper, seem to have fallen prey to the Thomas à Becket syndrome.

When in 1170 Henry II of England lost patience with his one-time good friend and former chancellor Thomas, whom he had appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, he allegedly said (doubtless in Norman French), “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Four eager young knights then rode secretly to Canterbury and eventually murdered the archbishop inside his own cathedral.

Henry, along with all Christendom, was horrified.

Many of the young acolytes and hero-worshippers in Harper’s PMO and party are of this knightly mould.

Harper’s problem is the culture of fanatical zealotry deeply embedded in his PMO – an all-powerful and relatively modern institution, essentially invented by Pierre Trudeau.

What exactly is the Prime Minister’s Office? And what is the job of the chief of staff to the Prime Minister?

Pierre Trudeau began the buildup of the modern PMO, which grew enormously during his 15 years in office. Since Trudeau, it has grown even further, to what is today a hard-to-manage monster at the centre of our government.

The job of the PMO is essentially to help the PM to do his job, in every area. The prime minister wears a number of hats: minister of the Crown and head of the government, chief policy-maker, arbiter of all senior appointments, MP and inspirer of his caucus, leader of his party, international statesman, and usually husband and father. The chief of staff must ensure that all of these functions are well discharged, and none is neglected. He or she must also be fearless (but diplomatic) in telling the PM what he is doing wrong – the toughest part of the job by far, and one in which most chiefs of staff have failed.

Harper, like most PMs, demands absolute loyalty from his office, government and caucus. But there is a fine line between loyalty and utter subservience. Harper’s PMO, filled with eager and ambitious young (often very young) Harper admirers, is loyal to the point of blindness to the effects of their brashness.

One of Harper’s few failings is occasional lapses in his judgment of character, resulting in some unfortunate appointments that come back to haunt him. The apparently unvetted appointment of Arthur Porter to head the Security Intelligence Review Committee, and also to the Privy Council, is an inexplicable case in point.

These and other poor appointments are a sign either of unacceptably shoddy staff work, or of the staff’s unwillingness or inability to tell the prime minister the truth and persuade him to pay the necessary heed. In either case, Harper’s PMO is failing him.

Before Nigel Wright’s departure, there was at least some adult supervision of the most extreme hardliners, and, one has good reason to believe, the occasional word of warning to the PM himself.

But now, one wonders, who, if anyone, is speaking truth to Harper?

The fearless advice required will not come from the civil service. It is unlikely to come from ministers, most of whom are too fearful of losing their jobs to be in any way critical of the leader, or to show independent initiative, however necessary such constructive criticism and independence might be.

Effective, independent, course-correcting advice can only come from the PMO, and is most effectively channeled through the chief of staff. Mulroney used to say that he detested getting critical memos from his PMO, but he would nevertheless lock himself in the bathroom and read them.

It is the nature of strong leaders to resent criticism and even advice, and to surround themselves with unquestioning yes men and women.

Only the wisest, and hence the most successful leaders, force themselves to reach beyond their tight and worshipful inner circle to seek more objective advice and analysis.

Harper’s ability to do so is now the critical question of his prime ministership.

Peter White, a member of the Conservative Party since 1958, was Principal Secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He is a delegate from Brome-Missisquoi to upcoming Calgary convention.