Stephen Harper resigned his seat as a Reform MP in the House of Commons in January 1997, five months before that year’s election. But it was during that campaign that two of the central figures in his rise to power first met. Ray Novak and Jenni Byrne encountered each other that spring as passengers on the party’s youth bus, a caravan of young Reformers who travelled Ontario, riding to riding, to knock on doors, hand out literature, make phone calls, cheer on their party and jeer at their rivals.
Sixteen years later, Novak and Byrne are at the top of the organizational chart at the Prime Minister’s Office, and they are at the Prime Minister’s side at a uniquely crucial time. Together with a recently refreshed PMO—three changes were announced last month, while a new director of communications was named last week—they are charged with moving the Harper government past its most difficult year to date, helping guide a new agenda, fending off Justin Trudeau and, two years from now, winning the Prime Minister a rare fourth mandate. “They’ve got a huge job to do,” says one strategist of the PMO. “They’ve got to figure out a reason to get re-elected.” Of some of the staffing changes, a former government official says, “It is about getting ready for a fight. We may end up losing that fight, but at least we are going to start fighting it.”
On the eve of a Throne Speech that’s meant to give new direction to the government, the Conservatives are trailing in the polls, and much of the hardship Harper has faced in recent months originated in the very office that has been retooled. The details of a secret $90,000 payment from former chief of staff Nigel Wright to disgraced Sen. Mike Duffy helped transform what was yet another story of senators behaving badly into a crisis for the Prime Minister himself. Even without that scandal, though, history would suggest Harper has a daunting task ahead. Only four prime ministers—John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau—have managed to secure four mandates, and not since Laurier, in 1908, has a prime minister won four in a row.
Novak, who famously once lived in a loft above the garage at Stornoway when Harper was leader of the Opposition, became the chief of staff after Wright’s resignation over the Duffy cheque. Novak has been by Harper’s side for more than a decade now, first as his executive assistant and later as principal secretary. In that most recent post, he took a particular interest in foreign relations and foreign policy. “The biggest challenge as chief, of course, is convincing people that what you’re saying and your actions are speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister. And nobody ever doubts that with Ray,” says Derek Vanstone, a former deputy chief of staff in the PMO who describes Novak as a “sweetheart of a guy.”
Byrne, who previously worked in the PMO, has been touted as Harper’s best political organizer. A tough partisan—“She’s got a reputation as a bit of a bruiser, but she’s brilliant,” says Vanstone—Byrne managed the Conservative campaign in 2011 and has overseen the party’s operations for the past four years. She now joins Joanne McNamara—a former chief of staff to two cabinet ministers who has been at the PMO for a year—as a deputy chief of staff. “[Byrne] has an intuitive understanding of the Conservative base that’s better than pretty much anyone I’ve ever met,” says Kory Teneycke, a former director of communications at the PMO, who was in charge of that Reform party youth bus and is now vice-president of Sun News Network. “[She’s] from small-town Ontario, and her experience growing up and her cultural touchstones are very much in tune with most people who are part of the Conservative movement.” As director of the party, she acted as a conduit between it and the PMO and also helped facilitate relations between the PMO and the Conservative caucus.
Byrne and Novak could be particularly well positioned to make peace with a restless backbench that distracted the Tories last spring. “They have a history of being there, calling people back and working through issues,” says Jason Lietaer, a Conservative strategist. “They’ve been around. You’re not getting a call from somebody you’ve never spoken to before or that doesn’t have any credibility.” Adds Vanstone of Byrne: “Caucus recognizes that Jenni is, to a large degree, responsible for our national campaigns, and the national campaigns are what most of them credit for winning. So she’s able to knock heads around, because she’s got that credibility.”
Joining Byrne and Novak are three up-and-comers: Alykhan Velshi, Joseph Lavoie and Lanny Cardow.
Cardow, 34, rejoins the PMO as the manager of government advertising and marketing. Previously an executive assistant to Ian Brodie, one of Harper’s former chiefs of staff, Cardow has a master’s degree from George Washington University’s graduate school of political management. He worked with Navigator Ltd., the Canadian public relations firm that once employed former PMO strategist Patrick Muttart, before spending a year in the United States as a “senior language strategist” with Luntz Global, the firm led by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and messaging guru. (Luntz has been credited with, among other things, styling Barack Obama’s health-care reforms as a “government takeover” and the estate tax as the “death tax.”) “The office has been a little shy of people with advertising and research experience,” says Lietaer. “That’s what Lanny brings to the table.”
Leading two of the office’s major departments will be former aides to two of Harper’s best ministers. Velshi, a former aide to Jason Kenney who had been the director of planning in the PMO since December 2011, is the new director of issues management, the department that traditionally deals with the day-to-day headlines. The 29-year-old holds a law degree from the London School of Economics and is the founder and former president of EthicalOil.org, an organization created to promote the idea, advanced by Ezra Levant’s book of the same name, that Canada is a more virtuous source of crude than the alternatives. “He’s a very strong partisan, very effective at quick response,” says Lietaer, who worked with Velshi in the Conservative campaign’s war room in 2011. “He knows the gallery and their tendencies, knows who would be likely to write this [or that] story and [with] what kind of angle.” Velshi, says the former government official, “is very aware of those situations that play poorly in Ottawa but well everywhere else”—for example, the government’s changes to the way refugees and asylum claimants are handled.
Lavoie, 29, a former aide to John Baird, is the new director of strategic communications, a position that has been vacant since May. He held a similar position in Baird’s office, handling social media and web design and helping lead some of its digital diplomacy initiatives, for instance the Foreign Affairs department’s attempt to reach out to Iranian communities through the Internet. Lavoie, who also spent time with Navigator and has sporadically maintained a blog in which he muses about food, fatherhood and social media, is a former winner of Magna International’s Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister competition. It was there that Lavoie first impressed former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who, along with Kim Campbell, Joe Clark and Paul Martin, judged the finalists. “I can remember being quite emphatic in my view that he had been by far the best contestant and performed extremely well,” Mulroney says. Months later, after Karlheinz Schreiber had revived questions about the German lobbyist’s dealings with the former prime minister, Mulroney contracted Navigator to handle his public relations, and Lavoie became one of his spokesmen. “He performed extremely well,” Mulroney says. “He showed maturity and good judgment and discretion. I think these are all qualities that Mr. Harper would value.”
Reflecting back on the reorganization of his own PMO in 1987, a year before his campaign for re-election, Mulroney says the strengthened and reinvigorated office was key to his victory. “An important part of that is the solace the Prime Minister gets from knowing that he has entrusted his well-being on the policy side and the political side to good people who are devoted to the welfare of Canada, the welfare of the government and his welfare.”
It can be argued that what the government needs right now is change. But Vanstone sees an important message in the presence of Novak, Byrne and McNamara. “It sends a stabilizing signal for the system,” he says.
And if trust is paramount, it is perhaps fitting that Novak should assume the top post and that Byrne should rejoin the PMO at this particular moment. “They’re both fiercely loyal, if there’s one thing that you would say about those two that ties them together,” says Lietaer. “There’s a reason why they’ve both been around as long as they have.”
They have, either figuratively or literally, been there for the entire ride with Harper. And now they’re more important than ever in determining how much further it can go.