Harper’s single white males

Paul Wells takes an inside look at where the power really lies in Ottawa

Harper’s single white males

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

For a loner, Stephen Harper works surprisingly well with others. The Prime Minister won his job by earning the loyalty of the old Reform party even though he used to be Preston Manning’s most persistent internal critic. He ended a decade’s rivalry with the Progressive Conservatives after doing more than almost anyone to fuel the rivalry.

He has wooed former Liberals into his caucus, sent New Democrat Gary Doer to Washington as Canada’s ambassador, and even put the occasional former Bloc Québécois member on the government payroll. No premier except Newfoundland’s now-retired Danny Williams has seen any political profit in antagonizing him. Harper drives his political opponents so crazy that it’s less frequently noticed how often he makes allies.

But the flip side of that coin is that his alliances rarely last. He hardly talks to former advisers like Tom Flanagan. He is on his fourth chief of staff, sixth communications director, and fifth foreign minister since he became Prime Minister. Jean Chrétien kept Eddie Goldenberg at his side for nearly 40 years. Paul Martin kept his 1990 Liberal leadership team around him until the day he retired. Harper’s team is like George Washington’s axe in the old joke, its blade replaced three times and its handle 26. All that remains is the ability to chop down opponents.

So the Harper team we are telling you about this week is this week’s Harper team, or this season’s. It reflects the political landscape, the boss’s agenda and personality, and the kind of year the Conservatives think they will have. But for this crucial time in Harper’s career, when he enjoys a firmer grasp on power than ever before, here’s the starting lineup.

The first man on our list, Nigel Wright, is new to Ottawa and the spotlight. The Harvard-educated lawyer and Bay Street business executive is Harper’s chief of staff. He replaced Guy Giorno on Jan. 1, then stepped back again, taking a secondary role during the spring election campaign. Wright runs the Prime Minister’s Office and, with the odd phone call, will yank the steering wheel in any minister’s office that needs it. Harper retains much of his fondness for governing from the centre, so Wright matters because he is now running the centre.

The other three are cabinet ministers. That in itself is new: interviews with several senior Conservatives suggest Harper’s PMO is already less overbearing than the versions that endured constant minority government uncertainty, and that at least a few ministers have more latitude to take strong initiatives.

The oldest of the ministerial trio is just 43, and Jason Kenney is also the likeliest to charge into a fight like a bull. The minister of citizenship and immigration has already picked a fight this year with Amnesty International over his plan to enlist the public’s help in identifying and rounding up fugitives suspected of hiding in Canada from their alleged past behaviour as war criminals. He fancies himself the guardian of small-c conservative orthodoxy in the Harper government, and the autonomy he enjoys within Harper’s government has no match.

John Baird, 42, doesn’t want autonomy. Since he moved to federal politics from a career in Ontario’s legislature in 2006, he has promoted himself, in public and in private, as Stephen Harper’s fiercest defender. “There’s nobody more loyal,” one adviser to a Conservative cabinet minister said on condition of anonymity. “He will dive into any controversy, no matter how ugly, and defend the PM down the line. That’s been noticed.” Now, after stints as environment minister and government House leader, Baird has the job his friends say he long coveted: foreign minister for a Prime Minister who increasingly sees foreign affairs as an area where this government can make a mark.

The youngest of the quartet we’ve selected faces a balancing act. James Moore, 35, is the heritage minister, which puts him in charge of institutions (the CBC) and activities (dancing in public) some Conservatives aren’t sure they like. Moore is a committed advocate for the arts. His Canadian movie nights have become a regular highlight of the Ottawa social calendar, and he’s planning to expand the concept with songwriters’ circles, but that only shows that one of his most skeptical audiences is the caucus he sits with in the Centre Block.

The four men contrast in their styles and priorities, but they also have a few things in common. All four are bachelors, which means only that they can devote truly extraordinary amounts of time to their roles. Moore flies home to B.C. every weekend and, as lead political minister for a province that has increasingly become a Conservative bastion, logs a lot of road time up and down the coast.

Kenney left the Conservative war room in this spring’s campaign after spending three campaigns helping to run the joint, in part because it was impractical to hope he would ever match a campaign’s rise-and-shine schedule. Kenney is a champion night owl, rarely up before 11 a.m., but often sending emails to colleagues long past 4 a.m.

Which means Kenney usually gets to bed at about the same time Nigel Wright is hitting the pavement for a morning run that often covers the length of a half-marathon. “Driven” is the adjective most often used to describe Wright, along with “modest.” “He could be sitting in that chair over there,” the Conservative ministerial staffer said, “and you wouldn’t notice him.” Together, Kenney the night owl and Wright the morning runner ensure essentially round-the-clock alertness for this government, as though it were outsourcing part of its workload each night to India.

This is not the same as saying Harper has a firm policy of hiring only armies of bachelors to do his bidding. His previous communications director, Dimitri Soudas, and his wife had three children during his nine years on Harper’s staff; he made a point of resigning in time to walk his daughter Georgia to her first day of school on Sept. 6. Young Conservative staffers have, on balance, been likelier to marry off and start families at a young age than their Liberal predecessors a decade earlier.

But infinite flexibility and a bottomless appetite for work do help one get ahead in Harper’s Ottawa. Both will be needed this autumn and in the years ahead. Nobody is entirely sure how the new majority government will change things, but no Conservative is expecting a free ride.

“A majority government does not mean easy sailing for our government,” Moore wrote in an exchange of emails with Maclean’s. “We have an ambitious official Opposition, a smaller but experienced Liberal party, a base that expects results, and the general public who is anxious about the economy.”

Harper made it clear during the campaign that he needs to balance the budget, though he was relentlessly unclear about how he’ll do it. “Choices will be made that won’t be popular to some,” Moore wrote, “so ministers will have to know their files, defend their choices, and communicate our decisions.”

The main forum for those choices will be the little-understood cabinet committee structure of the Harper government. In a conscious decision to reduce the procedural confusion that characterized Paul Martin’s tenure as prime minister, Harper cut the number of cabinet committees drastically in 2006. Two central steering committees, operations and priorities and planning, control most of the business. At first only four policy committees met occasionally to feed ideas and proposals to the central committees. Now there are six.

Only four ministers—Kenney, Moore, Transportation Minister Denis Lebel and the government’s Senate den mother, Marjorie LeBreton—sit on both the operations and the priorities and planning committees. The full cabinet almost never meets. So if you want to find power in Harper’s Ottawa, read those committee lists.

The operations committee meets on Mondays. It’s for crisis management and hot topics. It is also where parliamentary strategy and the government’s public communications plans are discussed. In fact, one staffer said the PMO communications director often makes suggestions on communications plans to “ops,” which then decides whether to proceed as the nominal communications boss wants. It was the ops committee that met during the 2008 coalition crisis to figure out how Harper should handle the most dangerous threat he has yet faced to his hold on power.

Traditionally in Conservative governments, the deputy prime minister has been chairman of ops. Harper doesn’t designate deputy prime ministers, but he made Jim Prentice his ops chair from 2006 to 2010. Now that Prentice has left Ottawa to be a vice-president at CIBC, the new ops chair is Jason Kenney.

Priorities and planning, the so-called P&P, meets on Tuesdays, with the Prime Minister at the head of the table and LeBreton to his right. It tries to take a longer view. Its 13 members, several sources said, constitute “the real cabinet.”

It’s a mark of Harper’s governing style that even at this level of functional microcosm, he maintains a certain balance among the Conservative movement’s constituent factions. The de facto deputy prime minister is Jason Kenney, one of Ottawa’s most ardent social conservatives. But Moore, who has repeatedly voted to support same-sex marriage and who snubs SunTV News for the CBC, is cast as a near-equal. LeBreton, a Brian Mulroney appointee who used to send reporters long emails detailing Harper’s shortcomings when she and he belonged to different parties, is always on hand to temper the youngsters’ enthusiasms with the lessons of experience.

Wright has been chief of staff for less than a year, and since April a series of interruptions has kept him from putting a clear imprint on the PMO. But many of the people he works with expect his PMO to be a less dominant force in Conservatives’ lives than its predecessors.

Harper’s first chief of staff, Ian Brodie, was a long-standing friend of the PM’s who imposed strict message discipline on the entire government, often telephoning MPs directly to warn them when they were getting out of line. His successor, Guy Giorno, gave the government a more sharply partisan edge and maintained firm control as the government weathered the partly self-inflicted coalition crisis, the global economic upheaval of 2008-09, and the massive spending stimulus that followed.

Giorno’s record speaks for itself. When he was done he chaired the campaign that won Harper a majority. But Conservatives now recall the extraordinary attention he sometimes devoted, perhaps to blow off steam as much as anything else, to trivial details like staffers’ job titles. Wright, by contrast, “has more of a sense of what’s important and really needs his involvement. He has a vision of where the country should be in 2015.”

Wright was managing director of Onex Corporation before coming to Ottawa. His business background and the svelte figure he cuts in a tailored suit have led many observers to assume he’s an old-style Bay Street Tory with no particular interest in social matters. Big mistake. “He’s an Anglo-Catholic,” one former Hill staffer notes. “There’s a certain cabal in our government of Vatican II rejectionist Catholics,” which includes, but isn’t limited to, Kenney and much of his own ministerial staff.

“Let’s put it this way,” the former staffer said. “Nigel is not going to pick up the phone and berate a minister for being too right-wing. That will never happen.”

But this can be stated more generally. Many Conservatives expect Wright to spend less time berating ministers for anything. Indeed, a lot of the strong personalities who shaped Harper’s early years have gone from the PMO. The list includes Patrick Muttart, his most important electoral strategist; communications kingpins Soudas and Kory Teneycke; Jenni Byrne, who used to be in charge of “issues management” (putting out fires).

In their place are “pleasant people who don’t really push hard,” the former staffer said, including policy director Rachel Curran and Harper’s principal spokesman, Andrew MacDougall. The heat of minority-government combat made some of the old crew into household names, at least in Ottawa’s geekier households. “Now, most cabinet ministers wouldn’t recognize these names,” the former staffer said.

Probably some of the PM’s current staff, including his soft-spoken chief, will discover iron in them that few suspected as the government navigates the next half-dozen crises. But in the meantime, a calmer centre means new opportunity for “the boldness of an individual minister really sinking his teeth into a file,” as one source put it. Kenney, Moore and Baird have some of Ottawa’s sharpest teeth. It will ensure they make their mark.

Well, probably. “Our focus will continue to be on the economy,” Moore said. “However, we’re always mindful of what Harold Macmillan said when asked what the greatest challenge is for a prime minister: ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’ ”

Five more who matter

Of course, even for someone who plays things as close as Stephen Harper, it takes more than a team of four to run a government. Here are a few others to watch in Ottawa.

Marjory LeBreton: She knows what a government can get away with and when it must move boldly.

Tony Clement: He wanted to be liked. Now he’s head of Treasury with a mandate to cut.

Ray Novak: A committed monarchist who’s said to have driven the decision to put “royal” back.

Diane Finley: Minister plays key role in policies that appeal to parents and drive leftists crazy.

Denis Lebel: Transport Minister enjoys more low-key influence than more well-known Quebecers

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