PM's new chief of staff questioned by MPs

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's incoming chief of staff defended himself from MPs' questions in Ottawa over potential conflicts of interest stemming from his former role as a Toronto business executive.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's incoming chief of staff defended himself from MPs' questions in Ottawa over potential conflicts of interest stemming from his former role as a Toronto business executive.

Nigel Wright, incoming chief of staff for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears before the House of Commons ethics committee in Ottawa on Tuesday. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
Nigel Wright told the House of Commons ethics committee on Tuesday that Mary Dawson, conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, has agreed to the "conflict wall" he has set up during his leave of absence from the private equity firm Onex Corp., where he was as managing director.

"My mandate with Onex is over and I will be devoting 100 per cent of my activities to the prime minister," Wright said.

He told MPs the reason he chose to take a leave of absence instead of severing his ties with Onex was to avoid forfeiting savings and stock options that took him many years to earn.

Wright added his leave of absence would turn into a voluntary resignation if he chose to stay with the government beyond January 2013.

"There's no obligation on their side to keep an offer open and there's no obligation on me to return," Wright said.

Potential conflicts

Wright said he began working with Dawson in April to prevent any potential conflicts once he assumes the post of top political staffer in the country. 

The "conflict wall" covers many policy areas and topics Wright will have to avoid, including aspects of taxation, trade and the aerospace industry.

Liberal committee member Wayne Easter said his party has concerns about the sheer number of industries Onex is involved in. The Liberal MP showed the committee a large multicoloured chart that mapped the connections between Onex, it's subsidiaries and various policy areas and government departments.

Easter said he envisioned a "whole new bureaucracy" having to be set up just to keep information from Wright.

But Wright said the system in place allows qualified people to apply the experience they've accrued in the private sector to public service.

Meanwhile, Bloc committee member Carol Freeman said Wright, as the PM's right-hand man, will "hear things, learn things, and get a lot of information " and can't forget all these state secrets when he goes back to the corporate world.

Wright insisted the ethics commissioner will be deeply involved in maintaining and, if necessary, adding to the ethical wall, which would divert any Onex interests from him.

Wright added his experience dealing with government while with Onex has been "extremely limited," so he doesn't foresee it being a problem as far as performing his job.

"I expect this to be a minimum hindrance," he told the MPs.

Ethical wall a 'fabrication': NDP's Martin

NDP member Pat Martin called the ethical wall a "new fabrication" and said Wright "can't even order a pizza for the PMO" because of the breadth of Onex's holdings, which includes CiCi's Pizza in the United States.

"Every move you make every breath you take puts you in a conflict of interest," said the ever-colourful New Democrat MP, drawing laughs from inside the committee.

He also questioned how well such a wall can work when it's to be enforced by one of Wright's underlings, Harper's deputy chief of staff Derek Vanstone.

Conservative member Pierre Poilievre, in turn, praised Wright for making himself available to public service after an "admirable" career in the private sector.

"It's good to see people who have succeeded in the private sector making the sacrifice to serve in the public realm," Poilievre said.

Wright is to replace Harper's outgoing chief of staff Guy Giorno, who is leaving the job at the end of the year. Wright is slated to take over on Jan. 1.

Wright told the committee he relished the opportunity to work with the prime minister, saying, "Our values align in every single way. I come here very eager to get going."