A quiet exercise of power in the PMO

Michael Rose April 8 1985

A quiet exercise of power in the PMO

Michael Rose April 8 1985

A quiet exercise of power in the PMO

Michael Rose

When he was opposition leader, Brian Mulroney regularly fulminated against the size and power—and the cost—of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) under Pierre Trudeau. But after promising more decentralized government decision-making and a revitalized House of Commons in last summer’s election campaign, the Prime Minister appears to have lost some of his reformist zeal. Led by his longtime friend and adviser Bernard Roy, a Montreal lawyer who was reluctant at first to take on the job of principal secretary and also chief of staff, Mulroney’s PMO has already become the largest, the costliest and perhaps the most powerful that Ottawa has ever known.

Despite Mulroney’s campaign commitment to spending restraint and deficit reduction, he has approved a startling 54per-cent increase in the PMO’s budget for this year, bringing the total annual operating cost to $6.7 million (compared to $4.35 million during Trudeau’s l^st full year in office). The office’s staff has risen to a total complement of 114, from a peak of 90 under Trudeau and 57 during Prime Minister John Turner’s brief term of office.

While many staffers are occupied with the increasingly heavy load of administrative work, such as arranging appointments and handling correspondence—a special staff of two also assists Mila Mulroney in her official role as the Prime Minister’s wife—the purely political operations of the PMO have been considerably strengthened. Currently, the PMO employs 13 policy advisers, compared to three at the most during the Trudeau era. And under Mulroney the PMO has taken on the task of reviewing all major press statements by cabinet ministers before they can be released, as well as clearing all important patronage appointments and senior hirings by cabinet ministers.

Some opposition politicians and bu-

reaucrats maintain that Mulroney and his closest advisers have decided to create a quasi-presidential system, concentrating real power in the hands of executive appointees —and away from Parliament and cabinet ministers. “I think Mulroney has a tendency to an imperial style,” says Liberal House Leader Herb Gray, a veteran of the Trudeau cabinet, “and a desire to centralize things more than Trudeau did.” Already, the new shape and scope of the

PMO has largely eclipsed some of the policy-formulating functions of the bureaucrats in the Privy Council Office (PCO), which traditionally has acted as a clearinghouse and co-ordinating agency for proposals and ideas from government ministries and departments.

The man at the head of the PMO is a soft-spoken bilingual native of Quebec City who guided Mulroney’s Conservatives to their near sweep of Quebec in the Sept. 4 federal election. Roy, who at first tried to turn down Mulroney’s offer, was finally lured away from his lucrative law practice at about half his

estimated $200,000-a-year salary at the Montreal firm of Ogilvy Renault. Roy joined other long-established Mulroney aides, including Press Secretary Bill Fox, policy advisers Charles McMillan and Fred Doucet—who served as Mulroney’s chief of staff when he was opposition leader—Patrick MacAdam, the special assistant for caucus liaison and policy development chief Geoff Norquay. Although Mulroney’s personal connection with many of his top PMO aides is strong—he studied at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., with Doucet and MacAdam —the bond between Mulroney and Roy is probably the strongest of all. Roy and Mulroney studied law together at Laval university in Quebec City in the early 1960s and shared bachelor quarters as young lawyers in Montreal before Mulroney was married in 1973, with Roy as best man.

At 45, Roy is a newcomer to the Ottawa scene and he is utterly different in his style from such high-profile principal secretaries under Trudeau as Marc Lalonde and Jim Coutts. At the peak of his power in the late 1970s Coutts could be seen holding court regularly at his reserved booth in the Grill of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel. “Some people seem to think that as a principal secretary g you have to be all over town and be seen to be a z mover and shaker, but 9 that’s not my style,” says Roy. Instead, he stays behind the scenes and retreats at the end of his 12-hour working days to his rented house in Ottawa’s fashionable midtown New Edinburgh district, where he and his wife, Madeleine, and their nine-year-old son, Philippe, live. For recreation, Roy—an accomplished defenceman who once played for the Laval university team —loves to take part in a bruising game of hockey in a local arena.

For all of his lack of interest in public displays of power, Roy makes no secret of the fact that the influence of the PMO was deliberately increased after the election. But he notes that to some ex-

tent the buildup of staff has been almost accidental. Mulroney’s habit of making sure that every letter to him is answered—Trudeau’s office used to acknowledge most letters —means that more correspondence staff is required, while Mulroney’s desire to find jobs for many of the staffers from his office as opposition leader further boosted the numbers. “You add two here or three there,” says Roy, “and finally you realize you have more than the Liberals had.” Roy insists that “I haven’t brought any preconceived ideas about how this shop should run.” But he acknowledges that the decision to become more involved in ministerial press releases and media relations in general is part of a move to make sure that “this government sings from the same song sheet.”

Roy also notes that the Mulroney administration is working to take control of a bureaucracy and a Privy Council Office that is still largely staffed by Liberal appointees or by civil servants who have served for much of their careers under Liberal governments. As a result, there is bound to be a shift in power—at least in the early stages of the government’s term of office—away from those areas and toward the PMO. “To the extent that you have a new government that brings with it new policies, I think the PCO people will acknowledge the fact that they expect the lead to be taken by the policy people in the PMO,” says Roy. Still, Roy acknowledges that others in Mulroney’s

close circle of advisers may have been more suspicious, and even more “bloodthirsty,” than he was about the federal bureaucracy and more intent on curbing its power—particularly those who watched former prime minister Joe Clark wrestle unsuccessfully with the Ottawa mandarinate during his brief term in office in 1979-80. But he denies that the enlarged PMO is part of a plan to permanently shift power away from other government areas.“There is really no game plan,” said Roy. “There is no hidden agenda as to what the PMO wishes to do with respect to its role and trying to oust the PCO, at least not in my book.”

Meanwhile, the sheer size of Mulroney’s inner circle of trusted advisers means that Roy is hardly likely to take on the “gatekeeper” function that Coutts used to perform for the remote and intensely private Trudeau. Outsiders complained during Coutts’s tenures as principal secretary in the 1970s and early 1980s that they could not get to Trudeau except through him and that important new ideas simply failed to reach the Prime Minister as a result. For his part, Roy insists that he does not object to other

senior staffers or people from outside the PMO having the Prime Minister’s ear. But he does enforce a rule, with Mulroney’s blessing, that copies of all memos, proposals and briefing materials that go before the Prime Minister be automatically sent to the principal secretary’s office as well. Says Roy: “There has to be someone in charge of the shop.” Some opposition critics believe that there is a more troubling explanation. Liberal Senator Michael Kirby, a Trudeau appointee who served the former Liberal prime minister in both the PMO and the PCO, says that Mulroney’s PMO has become so powerful under Roy’s stewardship that it is now in essence a “presidential” organization. Said Kirby: “To the extent that you control putting the right people in place and control what the government says, you have an enormous impact that spreads your power very wide. That would appear to contradict the image of decentralized power that is being cultivated by this government.” The centralizing thrust of the PMO also raises the prospect that the policymaking role of cabinet ministers may be limited—and that ministers could become restive.

Even if Liberal suspicions are unfounded and the PMO under Mulroney stops short of usurping ministerial power, Roy could nevertheless emerge as one of the most important men in the administration simply by virtue of his close ties to the Prime Minister. Roy — Mulroney always calls him “Ben”— openly admits that he is in Ottawa only because his friend needed him and insists that he would leave the job if it appeared to be putting that long-term relationship at risk. Mulroney’s position, notes Roy, is “such a demanding job that I want to do my little part to help him. It’s a lonely job being Prime Minister, and you like to have the presence at the end of ^ the day of someone you I can trust.”

* 9 With Anthony Wilson-Smith m# x in Montreal.

Anthony Wilson-Smith