Harper and Ignatieff’s very different inner circles

Recent hires speak to their different political styles

by John Geddes

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.

Harper and Ignatieff’s very different inner circles

  1. Why does Harper "reach into" and Ignatieff "raided"?

    Bias, much?

    If you want to talk about politicians who are outside the political circles, as you've said Harper goes to . . . can you get any better than Ignatieff, who's been criticized for not being a politicians? Harper is a political creature, that's all he's ever done is politics.

    You do oh, such good and not so subtle job of making it sound as if Harper's choice is cleaner and preferable to Ignatieff.

    This is definitely Andrew Coyne's magazine, and it's definitely showing way too much of a political bias for me.

    • CBC will welcome you with open arms i'm sure.

      • And I'm sure Thinking 101 will welcome you as well.

    • Margaret, relax.

  2. Wow, I read this completely differently from Margaret. I also thought it was biased, but I read it as an anti-Harper piece designed to show that he is surrounded by political party operatives and corporate conservatives with no public service or public sector experience.

    • As a fiscal conservative I consider that a positive.

      • So, my question is, where is the fiscal conservativeness with this government? Harper`s hires haven`t really shown much of that, have they?
        Or do you believe they have?

  3. at the end he comments on harper's new guy as most likely treating the government like some corporation and possibly alienating the public servants

    or did you quit after reading 2 sentences?

    "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."

    yea, it sounds more cleancut until he comments on the consequences of it

    • That paragraph is supposed to demonstrate what, exactly? It certainly does not criticize Harper, in fact it will please his core lickspittles no end.

      I read what was written, and words, especially sensational words, are what sticks in the public consciousness. The choice of words is a very important one – "reach" and "raid" really do have different connotations, no matter what he went on an analyzed. He started the article out that way, and that's the impression he wanted to make, that Ignatieff is doing something that is somehow wrong. "Raiding".

      Can't you figure that out? Can't you see any further than the end of your nose, or the end of your political preferences?

      Can you explain why he would use those two words? I'm sick and tired of journalists sticking Ignatieff; they suffer from group mind, and they live in ruts. Harper ALWAYS gets preferential treatment, even when they're criticizing him.

      "cutting costs of underperforming companies – task of reducing deficit" is exactly what's going to appeal to the Harper base, and to people's OMG sense of gee, this guy is SO TOUGH but he knows what he's doing.
      That paragraph you c/p'd doesn't change a thing, does not support your argument at all.

      Harper gets preferential treatment from this magazine, and others. I'm fed up with it. The media is as corrupt as the politicians are, they're as big a problem, if not bigger – than the political system. If we could get the bloody media out of bed with the politicians, their "strategists", their old-boys network; Canada would be a lot better off. CBC certainly needs a dead-wood pruning, but it is no better, in fact it's worse because the journalists are crappier – elsewhere.

      Choice of language, is extremely important. Duh.
      Journalists constantly display their dishonesty, and their biases, in this way. Canada used to have journalists to be proud of. Not any more. Corruption rules.

  4. Recruiting from the bandits of mulroony,gretchian, gang; I would keep my eyes open.

  5. It may simply be that there are more Liberal supporters that have been in government than there are Conservatives. Most of Mr. Harper's staffers appear to have had Mulroney connections, but it is always 'in their youth'. Probably because that was 17 years ago.

  6. this is what I like about some journailism, it speaks differently to both groups of supporters, in the same article, such an interesting way of writing and great for balance actually, it's kind of an art, well written article in that sense

    • This one doesn't.

  7. People complaining about bias in this (and every article) should also be questioning what biased lens they are reading the article with. You might find you learn more from reading by looking for things you didn't know before, rather than trying to out a political bias in the author. You might also try assuming that the journalist is trying to inform you of something not convince you of a partisan point.

    • And if you don't point out the political bias, what then? Does the journalist just continue on like that without being called to account?

      You're not going to learn a lot if the journalist is trying to bend your thinking to his or her way of thinking.

      This is something that journalists should be penalized for – pushing their biases.

      • Everyone has a bias about everything Margaret. That is one of the things that makes us individuals.

        My point is, it is the most boring type of comment to point out a journalist's bias as if you are the only one who can see it; do you think we're all stupid? Oh you're so clever. It diminishes the conversation to a point where there is no possible way to engage with it – so well done on that score – but you aren't really contributing any ideas.

        And if you think people should be punished for pushing their biases (i.e. points of view), then I'm sure there's a pleasant middle management position for you in China.

  8. Journalists are just that. they should stick to the substantiated facts…no inuendo or bias… So sad to say the most feared aspect of a politician's life is to be dishonored, and then proven not guilty. No wonder the cream does not rise to the top. Unless you've got photos or memos in your back pocket, you might as well give up the idea of being a public servant, in any language.
    Pogo said it best:" we have met the enemey and he is us". I think Maeshall Mcluan was wrong: the media is the message, and who ever buys enough media, willown the politics.

  9. 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.

    Don't tease me like that. I will believe it only when I see it.

  10. This must be Poe's Law. You aren't serious… Are you?

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