When Derek Burney left the external affairs department at the end of March to become chief of staff to Prime Minis-
ter Brian Mulroney, his former colleagues held a reception for him at the home of undersecretary of state James (Si) Taylor. Their parting gift, presented in jest, was a gleaming new pitchfork. The message behind the unusual presentation was that, in the transition from the private, circumspect life of an anonymous civil servant to one of the most powerful political jobs in Ottawa, Burney faced a herculean task. His challenge, as seen by the small group of friends who gathered to wish him well, was to restructure the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and clear out the deadwood—much-criticized old university friends and cronies that Mulroney had brought in to advise him. Said one senior adviser to the Prime Minister: “This place was like the Love Canal—it had to be cleaned up.”
Less than two months later the slightly overweight, bespectacled Burney has already taken major steps toward that goal. In the process, he has become one of the most influential men in the federal government. Indeed, he came into the Prime Minister’s Office with such force that some officials referred to him as Canada’s Donald Regan—a reference to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff who was known for tough, no-nonsense political management.
During Burney’s brief tenure as Mulroney’s chief organizer, several key aides to the Prime Minister have resigned—and more are expected to follow as Mulroney’s office is radically reorganized. The goal: to bring a new sense of discipline and purpose to the political nerve centre of government and begin the long process of rebuild-
ing the popularity of the embattled Conservative administration.
Burney, 47, lost no time in getting started. On his first morning in the job, he called senior staff members
into his office—actually, it was on loan from the Prime Minister—on the second floor of the Langevin Block, the hulking sandstone edifice facing the Parliament Buildings. In 15 minutes he explained the job that Mulroney had asked him to do: bring order and efficiency to a dangerously unstructured PMO; re-establish vital links with the bureaucracy; and free the Prime
Minister to chart the government’s course to winning the next election.
What Burney did not need to spell out—but what was apparent to those in the room—was that Mulroney had
also given him the power to carry out that mandate as he saw fit. While the reorganization is far from complete, Tory insiders say that Burney has already put the mark of a professional manager on the PMO. Said one: “There is no quick fix, but we are starting to turn it around.”
Burney’s first move was to get control of the Prime Minister’s agenda and restrict access to him. Previously, many of Mulroney’s senior aides were able to see him almost any time they wanted to—often resulting in several staff members claiming to speak for him on one issue. “One of Brian’s problems was his accessibility,” said one aide. “You can overdo that. That’s when things get out of control.” Now, Burney chairs a half-hour senior staff meeting in his office at 8:15 every morning to discuss the Prime Minister’s daily schedule. Gone—according to several key insiders interviewed by Maclean's—are the impromptu meetings during which the Prime Minister’s advisers would pull up a chair and tackle issues in an informal manner, o. That led not only to confusion within the office—but z also sent an unsettling lues's sage to the Conservative party and caucus that no one was firmly in control at the
centre of power. Said a veteran party member who has worked with four Tory leaders: “There was a frustration in the party that people with no experience had their fingers on the levers of power. Those people who had worked hard to get us in were left out.”
Burney’s arrival was also followed shortly by the departure of several senior PMO staff members. Deputy principal secretary Ian Anderson resigned on April 22; a week later senior adviser William Fox also left. According to PMO officials, Burney called Fox into his office and told him politely but bluntly that it would be “in his best interests” to leave. The message was clear—and within minutes Fox had dusted off the undated letter of resignation that he kept in his filing cabinet and handed it to Mulroney.
The combative Fox, 39, became the fifth Mulroney loyalist to resign, be fired or be moved to a less responsible position. The far-reaching shakeup of
Mulroney’s inner circle promises to lead to more casualties before the summer recess of the House of Commons on June 30. Among the likely departures are Mulroney’s senior policy adviser Charles McMillan, executive
assistant Bill Pristanski, and speech writer L. Ian MacDonald.
The patrician and aloof principal secretary, Bernard Roy—whose lack of political experience and uncertain leadership were blamed by many for Mulroney’s problems—will carry on with the important but limited role of managing the government’s affairs in Quebec.
Burney also sent small but important signals to the Tory caucus and party. He revived
the political tour strategy committee— which helps to plan the Prime Minister’s travel schedule and includes party members from all areas of the country. Declared deputy chief of staff Marjory LeBreton: “It was a signal that the party has some say.”
The changes have not yet resulted in major new initiatives or in improvements in opinion polls—which last week still had the Tories in third place (page 12). But insiders say that they expect that firmer management at the centre of the government will lead to improved performance—and an improved standing with voters. At the
same time, they caution that the government still must achieve successes in its major policy goals, especially tax reform and a trade deal with the United States. Said one Mulroney adviser: “Whether the government is successful
politically depends on the issues. Derek Burney is not a magician when it comes to that.”
A career foreign service officer who is fluent in Japanese as well as French, Burney won praise from Liberal government officials for his role in organizing the 1981 Ottawa summit meeting of major industrial nations. He first came to Mulroney’s attention for his adroit handling of the 1985 Shamrock Summit with Reagan —and retained
the Prime Minister’s confidence as he played a major behind-the-scenes role in managing U.S.-Canadian trade issues.
Even before joining the foreign service in 1963, Burney had earned a reputation as a straight arrow who told his superiors what he really thought. John Meisel, a political science professor and former chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, taught Burney at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where he earned a master’s degree in political science. Meisel told Maclean's that Mulroney’s new chief of staff will not hesitate to be blunt with his boss. Said Meisel: “Others have built Mulroney up into a divine, imperial being. Derek has a lot of integrity and honesty and will tell the PM what he thinks. That is a very rare quality.”
Burney was born and raised in Fort William, Ont., now part of Thunder Bay, where his father, George, was an alderman and ran an eight-car taxi service. After his father’s death, his mother, Annie, took over the taxi business. While in high school, Burney played on the basketball and football teams and was active in school drama-playing the lead in James Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton. As well, Burney told Maclean’s, “I drove a cab, worked in the elevators and in the paper mill—like any other kid.”
At Queen’s, Burney continued his acting and was a member of the Conservative party’s youth wing, a political connection that he dismisses now as “campus politics.” Declared Meisel: “He was not brilliant, but he was a solid, sensible, practical guy—someone to rely on in a crisis.” It was the variety of people, jobs and environments that attracted Burney to the foreign service. He rose rapidly, serving in New Zealand, Japan and as ambassador to Korea before filling the department’s second-most-important postassociate undersecretary of state.
In his new role, Burney has abandoned the anonymity he enjoyed as the unnamed “senior official” frequently quoted in the news media as the Canadian government’s chief spokesman on foreign policy. Still, he avoids answering questions about his own personal role. “I don’t have my own agenda,” Burney said in an interview last week. “I don’t see myself as wanting a personality. I’m trying to do the job anonymously.” But operating at the centre of Ottawa’s high-pressure political world, Burney is likely to discover that power and privacy seldom go together.
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