Ian Brodie, Harper’s top aide, may yet survive the NAFTA fracas. It helps that he’s indispensible.
THE QUIET MAN AND THE UPROAR
Ian Brodie, Harper’s top aide, may yet survive the NAFTA fracas. It helps that he’s indispensible.
Until recently, Ian Brodie’s reputation could be summed up succinctly: discreet guy with beard. The beard part still holds. But now Stephen Harper’s previously low-profile chief of staff is on his way to being infamous for an indiscretion. His alleged role in the leaking of Canadian government confidences on the NAFTA policies of U.S. Democratic presidential hopefuls has put his future as Harper’s top aide in doubt. Those who know him well say Brodie must be in agony over the way he became the focus of media attention. “He is not the show,” says Tory strategist Goldy Hyder, who has known Brodie since they were university students together. “He knows he’s not the show. He doesn’t want to be the show.”
Actually, he’s the show. Harper has promised a sweeping investigation into the leaks, and Brodie’s role has to be a subject of the probe. The outline of what happened has been widely reported, though details have
not been confirmed. Last month, during a closed, day-long media briefing—called a lock-up—for the federal budget, Brodie patrolled the room, chatting casually with dozens of journalists. At one point, he apparently played down talk about both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama threatening to demand a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Brodie apparently alluded to information the Canadian government had gathered suggesting Clinton was not serious.
That comment led first CTV, then U.S. journalists, to dig for the background of Brodie’s remark. The focus somehow shifted from Clinton to Obama, and a Canadian diplomatic memo surfaced. It summarized a meeting between an Obama economic adviser and the Canadian consul general in Chicago, in which the adviser purportedly suggested the Illinois senator’s anti-NAFTA talk was more posturing than policy. Clinton jumped on the news as evidence her rival was deceiv-
ing Democrats, and Obama was forced to repeatedly deny the claim in the Canadian memo. Harper was embarrassed. “We’re going to investigate this entire matter,” he vowed last week, “and take whatever action is deemed necessary, based on the facts we are able to discover.”
Nobody is indispensable in politics, but Brodie comes close in the Harper machine. If he were forced to resign, the hole he’d leave behind would be gaping. He is a bridge inside the Conservative party between its old Tory branch and its former Reform wing. He combines serious credentials as a conservative thinker with battle-proven skills as a Conservative organizer. His personal bonds with other top players in the Harper team, notably campaign chieftain Doug Finley, are tighdy knotted. And in a government often defined by Harper’s sharp edge, the soft-spoken Brodie provides, at least among insiders, an essential counterbalance.
No wonder many Tories can’t imagine
Harper dumping him, no matter what. Hyder predicts Brodie will keep his job because the leaks in question—a comment to journalists and a diplomatic note slipped to reporters— need not be seen as connected. “We need to separate the two,” he said.
Still, Harper has asked his strictly non-partisan top bureaucrat, Kevin Lynch, the clerk of the Privy Council, to investigate, and if Lynch recommends disciplinary action against, say, a Foreign Affairs official, or perhaps a lower-level political operative, Harper might not be able to avoid pinning at least some blame on the much more powerful man who reportedly set the whole affair in motion.
Brodie is, in some ways, a kind of alterego for the Prime Minister. Like his boss, he was born and raised in Toronto, but came of age intellectually at the University of Calgary. Both men’s political convictions grew out of their rejection of Pierre Trudeau’s legacy—the young Harper angry over Liberal economic policies that climaxed with the 198O National Energy Policy, Brodie reacting against the expansion of interest groups’ clout associated with the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Brodie stood out early as a promising thinker. McGill University political science professor Christopher Manfredi remembers an undergraduate of unusual “intellectual seriousness.” But Brodie wasn’t just smart. “He always had a high interest in public service,” Manfredi recalls, “and I think he was always a small-c conservative.” Given his rightward leanings, it made sense for Brodie to move for graduate studies to the University of Calgary, then a hotbed of conservative ideas on politics, economics, and history. It was there that Brodie met Harper, an older economics student.
Both were under the sway of the so-called “Calgary School,” a cluster of U of C conservatives like economist Robert Mansell and political scientist Roger Gibbins. Brodie’s key mentor was Ted Morton, then a politics professor, now a provincial politician in Alberta’s Tory government. Morton encouraged his star student’s interest in the way court decisions shape society outside the arena of democratic politics, but his influence went deeper than theory. “Brodie took on the same activism as Morton, primarily pro-life, that sort of cause,” recalls Faron Ellis, a contemporary of Brodie’s at the University of Calgary, and now an expert on polling at Lethbridge College. The social conservative label, however, has not followed Brodie into public life. One newspaper profile described him as “a fiscal conservative, not a social conservative.”
But Brodie was interested not in taxes and
spending, but in values and rights. Graduating with a Ph.D. in 1997, he joined the faculty at the University of Western Ontario. In 2002, he published Friends of the Court: The Privileging of Interest Group Litigants in Canada, a critique of the way groups like gay-rights activists, feminists, and minority-language communities advance their political causes through the courts.
Brodie’s close study of the courts can make him sound like the ultimate wonk. But the book is grounded in a more sweeping analysis of Canadian politics since the 1960s. Brodie has written, with Morton, that the Liberal governments of Lester Pearson and, especially, Trudeau, used the power of the state to reshape society, creating new Canadian symbols, promoting bilingualism and multiculturalism, funding interest groups, and spawning “wildly successful” interest in law reform and rights issues. The underlying argument is that Liberals didn’t respond to a changing society, they propelled the
change. The new Conservatism is arguably a bid to reverse all that.
Brodie made enough of a splash that other academics were taken aback when he put his university career on hold in 2003 to try politics full-time. “He took on the politics angle just as his academic career was about to take off,” says Manfredi. “He was a coming scholar, there’s no doubt about it,” agrees McMaster University political science professor emeritus Janet Ajzenstat. And Brodie didn’t even jump into the usual prof-turned-pol role of deep policy thinker. Instead, he got his feet wet toiling for a candidate in a southwestern Ontario by-election. It was a key test of Harper’s leadership of the Canadian Alliance—and the party lost. But Brodie had worked closely
'HE WAS A COMING SCHOLAR, THERE’S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT’
with Doug Finley, the beginning of a partnership that now dominates Tory backrooms.
Brodie soon moved to Ottawa as deputy chief of staff in Harper’s office as the official Opposition leader. After Harper united the right and won the leadership of the new Conservatives, Brodie was appointed the party’s first national director. (It was actually Brodie’s wife, Vida—herself a significant player as an events organizer for the party—who approached Harper’s top aide, then Tom Flanagan, about appointing her husband to manage the party.)
After the Tories lost to Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2004, Brodie took on organizing a national policy convention in Montreal. It was a critical turning point, allowing the party to adopt moderate positions, cooling hot buttons by declaring support for official bilingualism and vowing not to pass any new law on abortion. Brodie attended to details, personally informing Saskatchewan anti-freetrade maverick David Orchard, for instance, that he wouldn’t be allowed into the room.
The next key step in Brodie’s rise came in the summer of 2005. In Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells recounts how Finley, by then firmly established as Harper’s best campaign organizer, and Brodie had dinner at Finely’s apartment. They decided to divide up the party: Finley would run the campaigns, Brodie would take over Harper’s office.
And so it has remained. After his win in 2006, Harper defied speculation that he might turn to an Ottawa icon, maybe Senator Hugh Segal, and stuck with Brodie as chief of staff. What’s more, Harper chose to have only one top dog in his PMO, instead of dividing the role, as many previous prime ministers have done, between a chief of staff and a principal secretary. Harper and Brodie complement each other. The PM is an intimidating figure, his chief of staff approachable. “Ian,” Hyder says, “knows he doesn’t need to be the heavy.”
No, his boss has that covered. But Harper must be hoping Lynch’s investigation doesn’t force him to come down heavy on Brodie. If Brodie does survive, however, things will still change for him. The days when he could function quietly at the top level of politics, slipping in and out of rooms all but unnoticed, are over for good. M
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