OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had to face one of his government's biggest challenges to date — the controversy over the multi-billion-dollar purchase of fighter jets — without the help of his right-hand man.
Nigel Wright, the prime minister's chief of staff, has carefully and completely stayed out of any discussions of the procurement issue since he took up his post in January 2011, according to several government sources.
Wright has had to abide by a so-called "ethical wall," put in place to ensure that there was no conflict between files he dealt with in corporate Canada and those that would come across his political desk.
Wright was an executive with private equity firm Onex Corp., and dealt specifically with the aerospace industry. Onex manages capital for Hawker Beechcraft, a firm that has partnered on projects with F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Wright is on a leave of absence from Onex, and could go back any time between July and next January.
He appears to have initially underestimated how large the F-35s loomed over the political landscape, telling a Commons committee in late 2010 that he foresaw few potential conflicts that would require him to step out of political deliberations.
"I don't expect issues to arise very frequently," Wright said at the time.
The fighter jet debacle has dominated the political debate on Parliament Hill since the auditor general suggested a month ago that Parliament had been misled on the true costs of the program — pegging them at $25 billion rather than $16 billion.
But what has Wright's absence meant for Harper's ability to handle the sensitive F-35 file? When he was hired, Wright said the constraints were "not going to hinder the service I'm going to render to the prime minister."
Liberal trade critic Wayne Easter, who was among the MPs to grill Wright in 2010 at the committee, said he has never believed the arrangement could work.
"The chief of staff is the eyes and ears of the prime minister on the workings of government," said Easter.
"This is an absolute fiasco in terms of how it was handled and where it's at, and maybe if he'd been on top of the file the government wouldn't have been in this mess ...."
Wright is talked about reverentially within cabinet offices as a smart, energetic and sanguine strategist who has only been an asset to Harper and the government.
But there have been some internal criticisms that the reason the F-35 issue has unfolded so negatively is because of departments and their ministers pulling in different directions, with not enough centralized oversight.
Industry Canada wants to push domestic job creation, Public Works is taken by the procurement process, and the Department of National Defence wants everyone to know why the equipment is needed.
"I think part of the issue here is that departments went in all different directions," said one government insider. "There's always lessons learned, and one of the lessons is consistency."
Others see the core of the problem as one buried deep inside National Defence — not something that Wright would have had any control over.
One government hand said Wright has cultivated a team at the Prime Minister's Office that is more than capable of handling the file without Wright's direct involvement.
"He's created such an effective strategy, I feel there's enough smart people around his office who he's provided with good direction," said one senior Tory.
NDP MP Pat Martin says one of the main problems with Wright's post is not what is happening now, but what will happen once he goes back to work at Onex. The Conflict of Interest Act calls for a one-year cooling off period preventing former public office holders from taking jobs with firms they had direct contact with while in government.
It also prohibits former public office holders from taking advantage of their previous government job at their private sector workplace, or using information to which they were privy.
"Who's going to police this cooling of period? It's ridiculous," said Martin.
"He's gained the most privileged access to information of anybody in the country, taking right back into the corporate boardrooms all of the inside information and connections that he's gleaned."
On that point, Wright has said he'll be treated like any other person who has been a public office holder.
"The Act applies to me as it does to everybody else," Wright told MPs in 2010.
"One day I assume this will happen: upon leaving the employ of the prime minister, I will be consulting with the ethics commissioner to determine how best to comply with the act. I will be complying with the code."
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