Harper and Ignatieff’s very different inner circles

Recent hires speak to their different political styles

Tibor Kolley/Globe and Mail/ Photograph by Blair Gable

If there were any doubts left about the stark difference between the teams assembled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, two recent top-level recruits to their rival staffs should go a long way toward putting them to rest. Harper reached into the rarified ranks of Toronto’s business elite to find a new chief of staff—Nigel Wright, maker of multi-billion-dollar deals at Onex Corp. Ignatieff raided the foreign service to fill his opening for a principal secretary—Patrick Parisot, who has served as Canadian ambassador to Chile, Portugal and, most recently, Algeria.

Those who know them would quickly protest that “businessman” doesn’t sum up Wright any more than “diplomat” captures Parisot. Both are partisan political creatures, too. As a young lawyer, Wright worked in Brian Mulroney’s PMO during two stints in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. At various times he’s been connected to the circles of Treasury Board President Stockwell Day and former Ontario premier Mike Harris. Parisot served former prime minister Jean Chrétien in senior communications and strategy posts from 1993 until 2001, when Chrétien rewarded him with his first job as an ambassador.

Yet these appointments signal more than the natural tendency of political leaders to tap the talents of devoted partisans. In choosing Wright, Harper has continued his clear pattern of relying almost exclusively on top aides who have never worked inside the federal public service. And in hiring Parisot, Ignatieff has kept up his habit of filling out his staff with precisely the sort of federal public service veterans who aren’t finding employment these days in the PMO.

Consider a few key players. Brian Bohunicky worked in four federal departments, after serving as an aide to Liberal ministers in Chrétien’s cabinet, before Ignatieff lured him back into the party fold as his top policy adviser. Another policy thinker, Kevin Chan, came to work for Ignatieff straight out of the Privy Council Office, the very heart of bureaucratic power in Ottawa. By contrast, Harper’s closest aides—from Ray Novak, his principal secretary, to Dimitri Soudas, his communications director—overwhelmingly bring credentials as paid party operatives, and sometimes as advocates of right-leaning causes, but almost never as bureaucrats.

The easy explanation is that Harper doesn’t feel any affinity for government employees. Indeed, before he won power back in 2006, he mused about how a “Liberal civil service” would keep a Tory government in check. Even as his government approaches five years in office, close observers still detect a wariness in the way Harper’s Conservatives approach dealings with the senior ranks of the public service. “Going in, they are suspicious,” says University of Ottawa professor of public sector management David Zussman. “The trust has to be built up.”

Still, it’s wrong to imagine that there are no senior mandarins with Conservative leanings. The current deputy ministers in charge of several major departments, including Justice, Canadian Heritage and Human Resources and Skills Development, were all active Tories before they joined the non-partisan public service. But they tend to be remnants of the old practice of offering political staffers an inside track when it came to getting permanent federal jobs, a policy ended by Harper early on in the life of his government as one reform among many in the landmark Federal Accountability Act.

That move in 2006 to make it harder for political aides to recast themselves as public servants showed Harper trying to erect a permanent barrier between the two lines of work. Back then, some veterans of Ottawa’s culture of power predicted that if the Harper government lasted, his Conservatives would in time grow more comfortable with the bureaucracy, just as Mulroney’s did. If that’s happening, it isn’t evident in the PMO’s top ranks. Sources familiar with Wright’s business style predict that when he takes over as Harper’s chief of staff early next year, he’ll apply a corporate takeover specialist’s approach to cutting costs at underperforming companies to the task of reducing the federal deficit. And that doesn’t sound like a prescription for an easygoing new era in relations between Harper’s political staff and the public servants they must work with to run the Canadian government.

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