How Stephen Harper's inner circle has changed

Harper's inner circle is shrinking, not in terms of size, but in age, life experience and links to the professions, some critical observers say.

Harper's cadre of advisers stacked with young partisans who don't talk back

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's inner circle is contracting, maybe not in size, but in terms of experienced advisers with backgrounds in law, business or academia. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Harper's inner circle is shrinking, not in terms of size, but in age, life experience and links to the professions, some critical observers say.

The paucity of sage advice might have come to the fore when Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly attacked Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin after the Supreme Court's rejection of his hand-picked candidate for a seat on the top bench.

A former staffer wonders if the savvy lawyers who were once his closest advisers would have bluntly told him it wasn't a good idea to go after a Supreme Court judge.

Tom Flanagan was Harper's campaign manager and chief of staff until 2004. In an interview, Flanagan, who admits the prime minister doesn't talk to him anymore, said, "He's lost so many people, it's kind of sad. We were good friends. When I would come to Ottawa I would stay at Stornoway."

In earlier years, Harper's staff often included lawyers, professors and business executives. Others had worked for previous prime ministers, and possessed an institutional memory of Parliament and a well-honed sense of what to learn from past political mistakes.

Flanagan listed a series of "very able people" who have passed through Harper's team. "Ken Boessenkool, Ian Brodie, Geoff Norquay, Bruce Carson — whatever his personal problems, are he's a very capable adviser —  Keith Beardsley, Guy Giorno,  Nigel Wright, David Emerson, Michael Fortier."

Some left after scandals, others just to make more money. Death took others: his former campaign manager, Senator Doug Finley, and former finance minister Jim Flaherty, who was not afraid to stand up to Harper and deem his income-splitting policy wasteful.

Flanagan continued, "Now I think the PMO [Prime Minister's Office] is filled with younger people who are not well-known for outside accomplishments."

A big loss was former prime minister Brian Mulroney, almost a mentor, whom Harper publicly shunned after the Karlheinz Schreiber scandal. 

"It's unfortunate that his advice has not been available. He has a sense of history and he has a sense of strategy and he has a sense of tactics that very few people have," said one former adviser who didn't want his name used.

Harper's habit of not just distancing himself from once close people who have displeased him, but outright banishing them, has led to an increasing isolation, some observers feel, forcing a reliance on hyper-partisans.

'The boys in short pants'

"So the team has then contracted," said Flanagan. "There's all these jokes about the boys in short pants."

Keith Beardsley, a former adviser to Harper, first coined the phrase "boys in short pants" to describe what he says are young staffers in the PMO who have a habit of "bossing around MPs of 20 years' experience and telling them how to do politics."

Beardsley wonders why Harper won't occasionally reach out to people who once worked for him. "Why not call Flanagan and say, 'Hey Tom.' You might totally disagree with the answer you get. Mulroney was famous for doing that, you know, picking up the phone and calling people."

Another former adviser said of Harper, "He has strong views. If you feel it's necessary to take them on, take them on. And if he shouts, shout back. And I did. And it worked just fine."

Beardsley, a former high school teacher and Montreal city councillor who left the Prime Minister's Office in 2008, doubts current staffers get into yelling matches with Harper "because of the youth, the intense partisanship." He added, "He can be an intimidating guy when he gets going. These are the rah-rah troops."

Harper is now on his fourth chief of staff since he became prime minister, after a long line of people with previous luminous careers, such as Flanagan and Brodie, both professors, and Giorno and Wright, both lawyers (Flanagan was Harper's chief of staff before he became prime minister). 

His current right hand is 37-year-old Ray Novak, so close to Harper he once lived above the garage at Stornoway when Harper was Opposition leader, and was treated as a family member.

Flanagan describes Novak, whom he taught at the University of Calgary, as "one of the smartest students I ever had."

Jenni Byrne, the same age as Novak, is a co-deputy chief of staff, and painted by Flanagan as "a warrior who would walk through a wall for you. Whether it's the right thing to do or not, she will do it."

Both Byrne and Novak, said to be exceedingly loyal and intense workaholics, have never worked outside politics, except for Novak's stint at the National Citizens Coalition, which can function as a holding pattern for Conservatives looking for a place to land.

"The range of advice that's around him [Harper] in his office is less than it was then at its peak," Flanagan said.

Not attracting 'top-drawer' people

Beardsley thinks Harper isn't attracting what Flanagan calls "top drawer" people because of rules in place since 2008 that prohibit lobbying for five years following a job as a designated public office holder.

"People aren't going to come up for one or two years. It's not worth it to them financially and career-wise."

An exception was the Harvard-educated Wright, whose self-made wealth and idealism about public service prompted him to take on the chief of staff job without a salary. But after he personally repaid Senator Mike Duffy's expense claims, rightly or wrongly, Harper felt Wright had betrayed him.

Currently, Beardsley said, many of the PMO staff come out of the parliamentary intern program. "They're all young and basically of one mindset," he said.

That mindset, said Beardsley, is something former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff references about his time in politics.

“We’ve blurred opponent with enemy,” Ignatieff said, in a speech last year to a law school audience. “Belonging matters more than confidence, expertise or trustworthiness.”


  • This story has been changed from an earlier version that stated Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on his 14th chief of staff. Harper has had four chiefs of staff since he became prime minister.
    May 26, 2014 12:58 PM ET