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The future of Harper chief of staff a mystery

Nigel Wright arrives to testify before the Commons ethics committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Nov. 2, 2010. It is uncertain whether he will continue to be Mr. Harper’s right hand or return to his powerful position at Onex Corp.


Stephen Harper's right hand in the Prime Minister's Office is on temporary loan from a major Bay Street firm and as time runs out on what was expected to be a two-year leave, the question arises: will he stay or will he go?

In late 2010, when Nigel Wright left a lucrative and powerful position at private equity giant Onex Corp. for a new assignment as Mr. Harper's chief of staff, his former employer was quoted saying they expected him back by late 2012.

It's not clear today, however, whether the 49-year-old business executive is ready to return on schedule to Onex.

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There are indications that he may be extending his stay at the centre of power in Ottawa.

The PMO declines to discuss the subject and Onex says it still believes Mr. Wright is coming back – but adds it doesn't want to guess when.

"We understand that Nigel intends to return to Onex after his time as chief of staff and we're looking forward to that but will not speculate on timing," Onex spokeswoman Emma Thompson told The Globe and Mail this week.

That's a change from what Onex management told the National Post in the fall of 2010 when a statement attributed to the company's management said it expected Mr. Wright to return "in 18 to 24 months to resume his leadership of the Aerospace and Defence and Energy verticals."

It's the expectation that Mr. Wright will return to the private equity firm that made it even more necessary for the PMO to throw up what it called an "ethical wall" to ensure there was no conflict between files he dealt with at Onex and matters he is tasked to handle in the PMO.

He's now under scrutiny by the federal ethics watchdog over his dealings with Barrick Gold Corp. The firm lobbied Mr. Wright this past May and he has personal connections to the family of the man who founded Barrick.

Today inside the Harper government, staffers have varying degrees of certainty on what the future holds for Mr. Wright, a private person known for playing his cards close to his chest.

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Some say they believe he's sticking around.

"I'm positive he is," one said. Another said Mr. Wright is offering no signals that would suggest he is preparing to disengage and depart the Conservative government. He is focused on the business of the day, a government staffer said, rather than securing a legacy as some might do if they were winding down their appointment as majordomo of the Prime Minister.

One unanswered question is whether Mr. Wright loses anything materially if he fails to return to Onex by January 2013, either in terms of stock options or an automatic right to return to his old job. Onex this week wouldn't answer questions about whether there is a plan in place covering how their former executive might return.

A change in chief of staff can have a major impact on the PMO. Each of Mr. Harper's three chiefs has put their own stamp on the office.

Ian Brodie, the folksy academic with strong ties to the Reform side of the Conservative Party, kicked off the Harper government's attempt to more tightly control the political message.

He was succeeded by Guy Giorno, a lawyer who cut his teeth in the Ontario government of Mike Harris and was more hard-driving as a manager. Mr. Giorno brought an even more passionate take-no-prisoners attitude to dealing with opposition parties in a minority government and found himself clashing with federal bureaucrats on a frequent basis.

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Mr. Wright, with long experience in the private sector, brought a stronger degree of managerial competence to the PMO. He's got a good grasp of economics and the business world and runs a smoother PMO machine.

In the past year, Mr. Wright has mentioned to people that he was considering extending his Ottawa tour.

"It was pretty clear that he wanted to stay. He just wasn't sure that he could," one source said.

Each of his predecessors, Mr. Brodie and Mr. Giorno, served as PMO chief of staff for roughly 2 1/2 years. For Mr. Wright to surpass this average time period, he'd need to serve until at least July 2013.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


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