Key women making a mark inside Harper's inner circle

A closer look at the workings of the Prime Minister's Office suggests some women have risen in power and influence around Harper, occupying key posts over the last year.
Women hold key spots in the Prime Minister's Office: deputy chief of staff, policy director and associate secretary to the cabinet. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper tweeted a photo of himself last week surrounded by 13 advisers — and only three of the staff around the big table were women.

A closer look at the workings of the Prime Minister's Office, however, suggests some women have risen in power and influence around Harper, occupying key posts over the last year.

Another of Harper's tweets featured a photo of him "debriefing with Nigel," chief of staff Nigel Wright. Beside the prime minister's right-hand man was Rachel Curran, a woman few Canadians have heard of.

Curran is Harper's director of policy, a post that often involves long-range thinking on key issues the government must tackle.

Curran had a more junior post previously inside the Prime Minister's Office, and before that advised Human Resources Minister Diane Finley. Prior to coming to Parliament Hill, she worked for British Columbia's Liberal government as a ministerial assistant.

Conservatives who spoke to The Canadian Press describe Curran as highly intelligent and thoughtful, and discreet —someone you might not find schmoozing in the capital's watering holes. On Harper's trip to India, Curran was omnipresent, but might easily have been confused with an understated bureaucrat.

She is also seen as less partisan, sought out for her advice on issues beyond straight-up policy.

"At that level, there's two groups, and she would be deemed the 'A' group, where people listen to her," said one Tory who has worked with Curran.

Chief of staff worked for Oda

Another fixture at the Langevin Block where Harper has his key offices is Joanne McNamara, deputy chief of staff.

McNamara has a long history in Conservative politics, having worked as a chief of staff for a minister in Ontario Premier Mike Harris' government.

She was an assistant to Bev Oda while the Conservatives were in opposition, and then an adviser to newly appointed Sen. Hugh Segal in 2005. She went on to become chief of staff to Oda at the Canadian International Development Agency, and then to James Moore for several years at Canadian Heritage.

Segal, and others, speak warmly of McNamara as a funny, down-to-earth manager who is easy to approach. McNamara handles operational tasks at the PMO, such as planning for the public activities of ministers.

"If there's one thing you need as the deputy chief of staff to a prime minister of any political affiliation, it's a strong sense of balance, and you've got to be grounded," said Segal, a former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"You can't get swept away with the crisis du jour, or the controversy, or what's trending on Twitter. You've got to have a way to balance it out, and she's got the kind of experience and the mentality as a political adviser to facilitate that kind of strength in that kind of situation."

Deborah Campbell has been with Harper from the beginning of his tenure as prime minister. She's the travel planning guru who decides where Harper should go and who he should meet. Anyone who wants Harper on their factory floor or at their gala must go through Campbell.

Jenni Byrne is no longer inside the prime minister's office, but she is widely considered one of the most powerful women in federal Conservative politics. She was Harper's campaign manager in the last election, and is the party's director of operations.

Byrne has a suffer-no-fools-gladly reputation, but also one for making tough decisions and giving candid advice in pressure-cooker situations involving the party. In her mid-30s, she has been a party stalwart since the Reform party days.

Some of the key women around Harper are not political at all but members of the civil service.

Janice Charette is the associate secretary to the cabinet, and a star inside the bureaucracy, having held a series of deputy minister posts before landing in the prime minister's department. Her name is brought up frequently as a possible successor to the clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters.

And Yale-educated Christine Hogan is Harper's foreign affairs and defence adviser. She was previously a vice-president at CIDA, and prior to that an executive at Environment Canada.