AMONG THE PLAYERS in the Prime Minister’s Office, Bruce Carson’s potential was among the hardest to size up in the early days. Nearing 60 when the Tories won power, he was a decade or two older than most of the crew considered closest to Stephen Harper. He was a long-time Tory organizer, who had worked for Joe Clark back in the days of the ill-fated Charlottetown accord, although that was hardly a sparkling resumé entry in Ottawa circa 2006. Carson had not even backed Harper during the leadership race for the newly merged Conservative party in 2004, remaining a neutral party policy official through the contest. His roots were deep, sure, but it was easy to imagine him settling into a respectable but second-tier role.
Instead, he is now acknowledged as an indispensable PMO figure. Officially Harper’s legislative assistant, his true stature is better reflected by the fact that he fills in as chief of staff when Ian Brodie is away from Ottawa. (At the time this article was being written, with Brodie on vacation, Carson was running the shop.) “He’s Harper’s grey-haired sage,” according to one veteran Conservative strategist. “The PM trusts him implicitly.” Other insiders confirm that Carson’s long experience and extensive personal contacts with old-school Tories are regarded as invaluable. But it’s not his institutional memory or seasoned perspective that have most enhanced Carson’s reputation—it’s his ability to take on tough files that demand concentrated work. “Bruce is our mechanic,” says a Harper confidant. “He can fix anything.”
Well, maybe not anything. Back in 2006, Carson was loaned to then environment minister Ron Ambrose when her handling of the government’s high-profile climate change strategy was spinning out of control. The intervention wasn’t enough to save Ambrose, who was later shuffled out of Environment to sink from sight as intergovernmental affairs minister. But Carson wasn’t blamed. Established on the file, he stuck with it to play a key behind-the-scenes role as an architect of Environment Minister John Baird’s bid last spring to succeed where
Ambrose had stumbled in crafting a plausible global warming strategy.
In that role, Carson appeared on the radar screens of powerful industry lobbyists, particularly in the oil and gas sector, who are worried about how any emissions regulations could hit their bottom lines. An Ottawa consultant with Tory credentials sees Carson brokering among cabinet ministers who represent sometimes conflicting interests on the climate change issue. “In virtually all of the negotiations among [Industry Minister] Jim Prentice, [Natural Resources Minister] Gary Lunn, and Baird,” said the consultant, “Bruce has been at the table.”
Carson’s close working relationship with Prentice, the influential chairman of the cabinet’s operations committee, is crucial. When Prentice was Indian affairs minister prior to last summer’s cabinet shuffle, Carson became the key behind-the-scenes architect of a new system for settling what are called “specific” native land claims. While Indian Affairs has never cracked the top echelon of Harper priorities, the portfolio is seen as strategically key. Having taken the controversial step of scrapping Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s multi-billion-dollar Kelowna accord, the Conservatives decided they needed at least one significant accomplishment in their relationship with native leaders to hang in the window. Carson delivered it.
Remarkably, Carson has played his mechanic’s role on files like climate change and land claims without giving up day-to-day prominence in Harper’s Parliament Hill operation. Along with Keith Beardsley, in charge of “issues management” in the PMO, Carson runs question period preparation. Not bad for a guy who not long ago looked like a relic from a previous Tory era.
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