Ignatieff's new guy and the Nervous Nellies

Don Newman on the challenges facing Liberal fixer Peter Donolo.

At the beginning of October, as the Liberal poll numbers were sliding below 30 per cent and Conservative support was climbing, two long-time acquaintances were discussing the future of the Liberal party and leader Michael Ignatieff.

"It is not all that bad," one suggested. "You of all people should remember how it was after Jean Chrétien took over. He was 'yesterday's man,' the party was in the dumps and people were talking about how to get rid of him and get Paul Martin into the leader's job."

"You're right," the other agreed. "But there is a big difference. Chrétien was able to call his critics Nervous Nellies because he had been in federal politics for almost 30 years, knew some things would change by themselves, and knew what to do to change the things that could be changed.

"The problem now is that the leader doesn't have any of that kind of experience to draw on. And neither do any of the people around him."

That last bit was Peter Donolo's, just three weeks ago.

Peter Donolo with his former boss, Jean Chretien. (Canadian Press)

Now he has taken a personal step to correct at least one of those problems.

He has agreed to leave his comfortable consulting job in Toronto at a company where he is a partner, get in his Thunderbird and drive back to Ottawa.

Bring on the Nellies

Just past his fiftieth birthday, Donolo is returning to the city where he made his reputation as Chretien's unflappable spokesman and personal sounding board.

He is taking over as Michael Ignatieff's chief of staff at a time when not just the Liberal caucus but virtually the entire party can be described as Nervous Nellies.

But now at least one of the people around the leader — Donolo — has been around when the future looks bleak.

It won't be an easy fix. Ignatieff is still relatively new to politics and must be wondering how he could be depicted as a wimp one day, for not forcing an election in June, and then an irresponsible knave a few months later for saying he wanted one this fall.

(His chief of staff will have to explain to him how it works when you are up in the polls.)

Donolo is also taking over just as leadership rivalries in the Liberal party are beginning to simmer again.

Bob Rae and his supporters were devastated when the leadership process to replace Stéphane Dion was truncated and Ignatieff was installed as interim leader back in December.

At the time, Rae read the writing on the wall and nominated Ignatieff to be permanent leader. But privately some of Rae's friends were calling the process a coup.

While Ignatieff and the party were up in the polls, they mainly kept their own counsel. Now that the reverse is true, they are rumbling.

The go-between

Ignatieff, himself, has made sport of the growing rumbles.

Two weeks ago, at the annual press gallery dinner, where politicians and journalists make fun of each other, Ignatieff ended his brief self-deprecating remarks by telling his in-the-know audience, "I have to stop now and return to my seat. Otherwise Bob Rae will be sitting in it."

Joking aside, it is the kind of situation Donolo should be uniquely equipped to handle.

During his time with Chrétien, he was the go-between keeping the lines of communication open between an angry prime minister and his would-be replacement, then finance minister Paul Martin.

But fixing that one schism won't be Donolo's only task.

When he was musing, earlier this month, about the travails of the party, it was shortly after the blow-up over the Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Outremont.

Denis Coderre had just quit in a much publicized huff as Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant after the leader overruled him on who would run for the Liberals there.

That left the riding open for former justice minister Martin Cauchon to seek the seat again.

But the back story here is that Coderre and Cauchon see each other as rivals to be the Quebec candidate whenever the Liberal leadership comes open again, as it could as early as after the next election if Ignatieff doesn't do well.

Michael Ignatieff and Denis Coderre, in happier times. (Canadian Press)

By tradition, it would again be time for a Quebecer to lead the party. Clearly the stakes were much higher than just running for the Liberals in Outremont.

Bob who?

Interestingly, Cauchon wanted to be a candidate for the party leadership in 2006 when Martin stepped down.

He had left politics in 2003 when Martin's team deposed Chrétien as leader. He joined a law firm and maintained close ties with Power Corp, the giant Montreal conglomerate that is controlled by the Desmarais family and where John Rae, Bob's brother, is executive vice-president.

When Cauchon told his Power Corp. friends that he was planning a run he was told: "Forget it. Bob is running."

Cauchon was surprised at this, along with other people. After all, Rae had been the NDP premier of Ontario, and before that an NDP member of parliament.

But he did as he was told and supported Bob Rae at the convention. That is, until the last ballot when Rae was knocked off and the choice came down to either Ignatieff or Dion.

Most of the Rae people went to Dion. But realizing that, if a fellow Quebecer won, his own leadership hopes would be put off, Cauchon cut a lonely figure as he moved to the appreciative arms of the Ignatieff team.

The guy

At the time he stormed out, Coderre loudly claimed that the Liberal leader's office was being run by a bunch of people from Toronto. That's a real epithet if you are from Quebec.

But Donolo is from both Toronto and Montreal, the traditional, twin power centres of the Liberal party.

A bilingual Montrealer, he built his career in Toronto and Ottawa, including in the prime minister's office.

He has taken the measure of the Coderres and Cauchons, and just about everyone else in the Liberal party. And he had a ringside seat as he watched Jean Pelletier, a master, operate as Chrétien's chief of staff.

It wasn't Pelletier though who recruited Donolo. It was Eddie Goldenberg, Chrétien's long-time aide.

Goldenberg had never met Donolo but had been asking around for recommendations on a new communications director when the name of Toronto mayor Art Eggleton's former press secretary came up.

Goldenberg set up a meeting. "As soon as I talked with Peter, I knew he was the guy," Goldberg reported.

Clearly, now, Michael Ignatieff is hoping the same thing.

One other thing: With an election threat receding, the Conservatives are now planning for a longer run in office. Witness the prime minister's plans for trips to India and China in November. They are also thinking about the timing of the next budget.

Don't be surprised if it comes down January 25. That would be the fourth anniversary of the Conservatives first coming to power in 2006 and who doesn't like to celebrate anniversaries.

The other advantage is that this date would also get the confidence votes that could topple the government out of the way just as the Vancouver Winter Olympics are starting. What opposition party would want to trigger an election as Canada's athletes are going up against the world's best here in our own country?