Ray Novak, PMO Chief of Staff. He's survived the PMO since 2008.
Prime Minister’s Office (PMO): Its political role is to be involved in everything a government does.
by Tom Thorne
Few can argue that political life in Canada is more complex than in the times of Sir John A. MacDonald when the Prime Minister had a private secretary to take care of his appointments, schedule and correspondence. The Prime Minister’s office was small and decisions were taken by the Cabinet and often after advice of the Privy Council.
In these simpler times the Prime Minister could be seen walking to work in Ottawa greeting, bantering and chatting with the public. The Prime Minister’s security was barely an issue.
Now of course the Government of Canada is a much more complex affair and the the bureaucracy that has grown up to run the country is controlled by the political arm of the Prime Minister. That organization is called the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Parliament of Canada website describes the PMO in this away:
“The organizational structure of the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) has traditionally been hierarchical in its design. At the upper echelons of this hierarchy resides the small circle of individuals entrusted with running the PMO. Depending on the personal approach of the Prime Minister, the duties of managing, administrating and co-ordinating the activities of the PMO might belong to the Principal Secretary, the Chief of Staff, or another key advisor.
The head of the PMO is granted virtually uninhibited access to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers. He or she oversees the activities of the Prime Minister’s staff, and can also serve as an important political adviser. In addition, the head of the PMO has the duty of liaising with the Privy Council Office (PCO), and attends the weekly meetings of the PCO’s senior staff as the representative of the PMO.
The functions served by the PMO, itself, have greatly evolved over time. In the ministries which followed Confederation, the Prime Minister’s secretaries mainly fulfilled basic service roles, such as responding to routine correspondence. In more recent times, with the institutionalization of the PMO, the raison d’être of the PMO and its staff has expanded to include a wider variety of tasks, including the provision of policy advice, information gathering, communications, planning, and strategizing.”
Although paid for by the public purse, through the Treasury Board, the current staff of the PMO work outside of the guidelines of normal government employees. They are not subject to the staffing guidelines, controls or protection of the Public Service Commission. As a result they can be asked to work 24/7 and easily fired if they don’t measure up or make embarrassing mistakes.
Nigel Wright who was serving as a Chief of Staff in the Harper PMO was summarily dispatched after embarrassing Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he gave $90,000 of his own money to bail out Senator Duffy’s expense problems. If you work in the PMO you accept that you work there at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.
This situation of course creates a loyal partisan group whose only loyalty is to the Prime Minister. Their loyalty to anything greater than the Prime Minister can create a climate of doing semi legal things where political considerations can sometimes shade truth and what is right and just. This attitude may very well be playing out in the Senate of Canada as they debate whether to take away senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau’s pay and allowances without due process. Certainly this is an order of the Prime Minister and of course the PMO will spin this view as is their duty as they see it.
This rarified concentration of energetic loyal political power is how Nigel Wright can make judgements like he did for Senator Mike Duffy. The role of Principal Secretary of Chief of Staff is 100 percent political expediency to protect the boss, who of course is the Prime Minister.
It can also, in the wrong hands, create an ex cathedra type of relationship with other government employees, members of Parliament in the Commons or the Senate of Canada. When the Chief of Staff talks to you and says or hints something that is the Prime Minister talking. So today in the Nigel Wright Senator Duffy experience what Nigel Wright did is perceived to have the blessing of the Prime Minister. Wright is the arm of the Prime Minister’s power and authority.
Worst yet, when the Prime Minister says he knew nothing of this situation is he really saying he could not properly manage his political implementor. When would Nigel Wright tell the Prime Minister about the $90,000? Never or at some point? Then there is a serious breech when the Chief of Staff takes it upon himself to act without clearing it with the boss.
If this is so, then Stephen Harper needs to get control of his PMO. Perhaps the new Chief of Staff, Raymond Novak has the savvy to know this. After all he has survived in the rarified PMO air since 2008 as Principal Secretary. Perhaps Raymond Novak knows and understands the limits of his authority.
© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.