It is the spokesman’s lot to be forever in frame yet rarely in focus. Spokesmen deny and confirm. Sometimes they reject or agree. They speak often, in other words, but say little. One would imagine, then, that after a long stint in communications, the average spokesman would have a lot of pent up things to say. But if the spokesman in question is Dimitri Soudas, one would be wrong.
Soudas stepped down this fall after nine years alongside Stephen Harper, a man he calls “the greatest prime minister Canada has ever had.” Soudas joined Harper when the latter was leader of the Canadian Alliance. He stayed with him through the Conservative merger, the Paul Martin minority and the coalition crisis. He leaves after a stretch as the Prime Minister’s chief spokesman and months after his old boss won the majority government he had long craved.
Recently, Soudas signed on as the executive director of communications for the Canadian Olympic Committee. In the week before confirming his new gig, Soudas spoke to Maclean’s about his years with Harper, the tone in Ottawa and what he would do differently, if he had it to do over again. (The answer: not much.) Soudas remains deeply loyal to his old colleagues. In conversation he retains the demeanor of a communications professional, forever on message, even if, as is the case, it’s not his message anymore.
Dimitri Soudas was born to Greek immigrant parents in Montreal in 1979. He came to politics early, volunteering for the federal Liberals in 1993. Back then, “it was not about choosing from a range of policies,” Soudas says. It was about being federalist or sovereignist. During that campaign, Soudas would put up Liberal signs during the day and take down opposition posters at night.
Soudas continued with the Liberals through the 1997 election before defecting to the Canadian Alliance in 2000. By that point, Soudas says, the sovereignty debate had become like “ a ball chained to [his] ankle.” He was tired of one party taking his vote for granted and ready to move on. Two years later, at 23, he joined the Alliance’s leader, Stephen Harper, in Ottawa.
He rose quickly as part of Harper’s team. In opposition, he served as press secretary, a role he reprised after Harper won his first minority in 2006. In 2010, Soudas was named Harper’s director of communications. Last spring, he was by the Prime Minister’s side on election night. It was a moment Soudas says brought on “the best feeling in the world,” a mix of relief, extreme happiness and satisfaction.
But things weren’t always so good. Soudas’s years in Ottawa were marked by a fierce and many believe excessive sense of partisanship. With Soudas on board, the Conservatives attacked opponents relentlessly, painting successive Liberal leaders as weak and aloof. But Soudas rejects the idea that Ottawa now is any nastier than it’s ever been. “If you actually look at the days of Diefenbaker, Trudeau—regardless of the era—the tone has been the same,” he says. “The only difference is, back in the day, there were no cameras in the House.”
Soudas also defends the party’s widespread use of attack ads. Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff wrote, after the election, that the Conservatives “stopped at nothing” to prove he didn’t belong in Canada. Soudas, though, says the only thing the party ever used against Ignatieff were his own words. “It’s what he said, on the public record,” Soudas says. “When, as a politician, you say certain things, you are ultimately accountable for them.”
Soudas became a father thrice over while in Ottawa. His youngest was born just a week before the spring campaign and he largely missed the first six weeks of her life. His new job is at least partly an attempt to recalibrate the balance between his personal and professional lives.
Even at home, though, Soudas never misses a chance to spin the party line. Every night during his years in Ottawa he would sit down and watch the 10 p.m. news with his daughter Georgia, who is now four. “I made a point of making sure that, whenever she recognized the Prime Minister, she would call him by his last name and give a thumbs up,” Soudas says. “And whenever she would see Mr. Ignatieff, she would say his name and give him a thumbs down.”