If you couldn’t immediately place the man in this photograph as one of the most powerful in federal politics, don’t beat yourself up. When Guy Giorno, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, made a rare public appearance recently to testify before a House committee looking into government secrecy, even some veteran Parliament Hill news photographers needed to have him pointed out so they would know which way to aim their lenses.
Giorno’s spotlight-shy style makes him an unfamiliar figure, but the issues he’s intimately caught up in couldn’t be more conspicuous. In the past, critics inside the Conservative party have grumbled that his bad advice led to missteps by Stephen Harper—sparking a public backlash when the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament in January, and bringing the Tories to the brink of defeat in late 2008 when the opposition formed a coalition over the threat of losing their federal subsidies.
On the other hand, senior Tories credit Giorno as a key architect of last year’s budget, and the aggressive marketing of it as “Canada’s Economic Action Plan”—a springboard for the Conservatives’ bounce in the polls this spring. Insiders also say he whipped the Prime Minister’s Office into shape. “People can pick apart and second-guess individual tactical decisions that impact the Ottawa news cycle,” says Patrick Muttart, Harper’s former deputy chief of staff, now managing director of a Chicago-based public strategy firm, “but Giorno has gotten the big things right.”
Sometimes, however, predicting when this week’s tactical decision might turn into next month’s unwelcome big thing is not easy. As a devout Catholic whose faith has never been far from the centre of his politics, Giorno is assumed to have played a role in the government’s decision to ban foreign aid funding for abortions. It was controversial from the outset, but the move has grown to cast a huge shadow over Harper’s bid to make “maternal and child health” in developing countries his signature cause when he hosts the G8 and G20 summits in Huntsville, Ont., and Toronto next month.
Perhaps more than any issue that’s arisen in Giorno’s nearly two years as Harper’s top adviser, outlawing overseas abortion funding threatens to drag him unwillingly toward the centre of media attention. (Giorno declined to be interviewed for this story.) Montreal’s Le Devoir reported a few days ago that an unhappy Harper wants the matter defused before world leaders, many of whom disagree with his stance, arrive in Ontario for the summits. But Giorno is reportedly worried about how Conservative supporters would react to any retreat and is urging Harper to “protect the base.”
The debate draws attention not only to Giorno’s personal beliefs, but also to his political instincts. Preparing for a global summit like the annual G8 and G20 meetings is the ultimate in prestige politics—exciting to insiders, but remote from ordinary voters. As a one-time top aide to former Ontario Tory premier Mike Harris, Giorno has long been skeptical of political showcases that matter most to the sort of sophisticates who never gave Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution” much respect. “He has deeply rooted conservative principles and an affinity to populism,” says Kory Teneycke, Harper’s former communications director. “He’s an insider now, but this is not someone who went to Upper Canada College.”
Indeed, there’s no private-school gloss on Giorno. Born in 1965, he grew up middle-class in Toronto’s Etobicoke suburb. By the time he graduated from high school in 1983, he had already settled into the staunch conservatism and activist Catholicism that still define his political persona. Graduating from the University of Toronto’s law school in 1989, he wrote speeches for Harris in his 1990 run for the provincial Tory leadership. He went on to serve as an adviser and then chief of staff in the premier’s office after Harris’s victory in the 1995 Ontario election. Before and after working for Harris, Giorno practised law in Toronto, specializing in lobbying, access to information and conflict of interest matters, as well as strategic communications and crisis management.
Harper recruited Giorno two years ago this month, but his new talent didn’t land in Ottawa until the summer of 2008. They didn’t know each other well before then. Giorno brought a reputation as both an economic and social conservative, along with a Harris-style sense that politicians, especially once they’re in power, too often lapse into jargon instead of making their convictions plain to the public. “Don’t use technical language,” Giorno once said, “to describe a virtue.”
But his management approach, rather than his communications advice, made the most immediate impact. His predecessor, Ian Brodie, a former political science professor, was a veteran campaigner and party organizer who had known Harper for many years. But Brodie had never held a senior government job before serving as the Prime Minister’s first chief of staff. Giorno’s experience under Harris meant he came fully loaded with ideas about how to run a government, along with a hard-earned understanding of how Conservatives in power need to push to get what they want from bureaucrats.
That underlying tension broke to the surface when the top federal mandarin, Kevin Lynch, quit as clerk of the Privy Council last spring. Giorno’s demand that billions in economic stimulus, meant to ease the recession, must be spent fast ran up against Lynch’s insistence on careful approval processes.
Government officials describe the clash in terms of Giorno riding the public service harder than Brodie ever had. “That caused some chafing with Kevin Lynch,” says Teneycke. “He was used to a different dynamic with Brodie.”
Not surprisingly, senior bureaucrats regard Giorno uneasily. Harper’s political staffers, on the other hand, tend to see him as a more benign figure. One reason is that he doesn’t monopolize the PM’s attention. He’s no gatekeeper: inside the Langevin Block, the PMO nerve centre across Wellington Street from Parliament, Giorno chose an office at the east end of the second floor, instead of one near Harper’s at the west end. He also ended the practice of allowing only a few top officials into Harper’s first morning briefing, letting about a dozen aides into that key agenda-setting session. And he rarely travels with the Prime Minister, leaving it to Harper’s principal secretary, Ray Novak, to be at the PM’s side when he’s on the road.
By allowing more advisers more direct access to the boss, Giorno has earned a fair degree of loyalty from them. He’s also shown some sensitivity to rank-and-file MPs, strictly limiting the number of unelected political operatives who attend their weekly caucus sessions with Harper, for example, to make it less intimidating for backbenchers to speak their minds. Giorno’s reputation among cabinet ministers’ aides is mixed. When things go wrong, he’s a lightning rod for their off-the-record criticism—as those who give prime ministers private counsel usually are. That makes any chief of staff’s job security uncertain, and speculation about how long Giorno will last swirls regularly.
Among cabinet ministers, he’s considered closest to those who share his roots in Harris’s Ontario government, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Industry Minister Tony Clement, and, particularly, Transport Minister John Baird, whose prominence has risen steadily since Giorno’s arrival in Ottawa two summers ago. Still, Teneycke says that far from being Torontocentric, Giorno was open to Prairie populism even back when Preston Manning was dividing Canadian conservatives. “He was the one Reform party sympathizer at Queen’s Park during the Harris years,” Teneycke says, “other than Harris himself.”
Tories tend to look most favourably on Giorno’s blend of sympathies and experience when their poll numbers climb. Lately, they’ve been up. Harper’s messy firing of Helena Guergis from cabinet—a decision in which Giorno played a forceful part, according to a senior aide to the Prime Minister—hasn’t hurt Conservative popularity. Neither has House Speaker Peter Milliken’s landmark ruling that the government must turn over uncensored documents on Afghan detainees to a committee of MPs from all parties. Both cases tend to support Giorno’s view that voters tune out debates that are mostly about process rather than outcomes. “People have as much faith in strategies,” he once remarked, “as they do in studies, task forces and committees.”
Muttart stresses Giorno’s guiding hand on economic matters above narrower files like the Guergis affair and the Afghan detainee controversy. Although the Finance Department is usually seen as taking the lead on economic policy, he describes Giorno’s involvement as “very hands-on” in the combined “policy and communications exercise.” And he points out that last year’s recession damaged the standing of governing parties in the U.S., Britain, and much of Europe—but not in Canada. “The Harper government’s success in weathering the storm was not a fluke,” Muttart says. “It was due in large part to the strategy pursued by Giorno.”
The abortion issue, though, is less about strategy than public perception of what the government cares most about. For Giorno, the mounting controversy has the potential to shift interest from his strategic acumen to his contentious convictions. After nearly two years working where he prefers, comfortably behind the scenes, he is in danger of becoming a man whose picture is readily recognizable.