Interview with Former PMO Chief of Staff, Ian Brodie

Interviewed by Greg Farries on Feb 24, 2009

Greg Farries: Thanks you for doing this interview, I thought I would start off with a few questions about the position of Chief of Staff and the Prime Minister's Office, and then narrow the focus to include some questions about your personal experience in politics over the past five years.

Greg Farries: Can you briefly. describe the roles and responsibility of the Chief of Staff of Canada's Prime Minister's Office?

Ian Brodie: The PMO Chief of Staff is the Prime Minister's lead political staff member. I led a staff of eighty-five. Together, we helped the Prime Minister set and supervise the strategic agenda of his government and manage the other political issues that arose day to day. We managed his schedule and made his travel arrangements. We helped him and his cabinet fill hundreds of federal offices each year. We handled media relations and other communications, parliamentary affairs, preparations for Question Period, and much of his correspondence from the public.

As Chief of Staff, I also kept in constant touch with ministers, senior government officials, the party staff and the national campaign team. I travelled to international summits with the Prime Minister. It was a great job and I loved it.

Greg Farries: How does the Chief of Staff of the PMO differ from the Principal Secretary of the PMO?

Ian Brodie: Greg, we didn't have a Principal Secretary when I was Chief of staff, so I'm going to pass on this question.

Greg Farries: Can you speculate or perhaps provide some context as to why Prime Minister Brian Mulroney chose to create a Chief of Staff position?

Ian Brodie: Every Prime Minister has two formal avenues for getting advice. One is through the permanent public service, and it provides non-partisan expertise. The other is through his or her political staff. Both the public service and the political staff have important advice to give and complementary viewpoints.

The Prime Minister's public service advice comes through the Prime Minister's department, the Privy Council Office. PCO coordinates the work of the federal public service in support of the agenda of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Prime Minister's political advice and support comes from the Prime Minister's Office.

PCO and PMO can and often do provide different advice to the Prime Minister. But once the Prime Minister has set a direction for the government, the two offices working together can move the government in whichever direction is necessary.

Greg Farries: The power and influence of the Prime Minister's Office has been increasing since the 1970s, do you think this trend will continue?

Ian Brodie: Actually, I'm not entirely sure I agree with the premise of your question. Mr Chretien's PMO was reputed to have been very powerful, but he was pushed out of office by his own caucus and party. Does that mean they were a powerful group? It seems to me that, like all political institutions, the PMO ebbs and wains in influence.

Now, with that caveat in mind, the prime ministership is a powerful office. Canadians focus their ultimate political expectations of the federal government on the Prime Minister. Any Prime Minister is going to want to surround him or herself with people capable of serving him well. That means a strong PMO, a strong senior public service, and a strong cabinet. The PMO has no power of its own. It only has influence if the Prime Minister wants it to have influence.

Greg Farries: Some critics claim this increased influence runs counter to democratic and accountable government – what is your opinion?

Ian Brodie: The PMO is only influential to the extent that the Prime Minister wants it to be influential. Ultimately, he is responsible and accountable to voters. And when he faces the voters, he cannot duck that accountability.

Canadian politics would be much worse if prime ministers went to the voters and said, "I know you don't like the way the government is being run, but there's really nothing I can do about it. You can't hold me accountable for the actions of my government." That would destroy our democratic system. There is nothing wrong with the prime minister of the day being in charge, and everything wrong if the prime minister of the day is not actually in charge.

Greg Farries: What are some of the highlights you've experienced while as Chief of Staff?

Ian Brodie: It was very satisfying to play a role in drafting our 2006 election platform and then help implement most of it. It was then very satisfying, having achieved most of what we promised to do, to help launch a second phase of the government's work with the October, 2007, Speech from the Throne and see most of it implemented.

Greg Farries: What were some of the more stressful experiences during your tenure in Ottawa?

Ian Brodie: The loss of soldiers in Afghanistan was very sad. But I found that Canadian soldiers and civilians all understood that casualties were the result of doing a very dangerous job in a very dangerous part of the world. Everyone handles these losses in a very professional way and we always kept in mind the horrible toll on the families and friends of those who have been killed.

Greg Farries: What moment as Chief of Staff are you most proud of?

Ian Brodie: I was very proud to see our government sworn in since I had we had done so much work to get there. I was also very proud to see the House of Commons renew the Afghanistan mission in February of 2008, after the Manley Panel reported. It avoided a national election over the mission.

Greg Farries: Given what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

Ian Brodie: Not really.

Greg Farries: Given the political tensions associated with the threat of a coalition government, what advice would you give the Prime Minister under these circumstances?

Ian Brodie: I don't share the advice I give the Prime Minister.

But I'm not sure minority and majority government are all that fundamentally different. You can only achieve things in politics by being focused, disciplined and tough. In a minority government or an economic crisis, you just have to be more focused, more disciplined and more tough.

Greg Farries: The Prime Minister's Office is one of those institutions in Canadian politics that isn't well known to the general public – considering its role in advising and supporting the Prime Minister, it is surprisingly difficult to find any detailed information about the Office and or its staff. Why do you think this is the case?

Ian Brodie: Because former chiefs of staff are so damned discrete!

It's hard to generalize about the PMO because each prime minister uses his or her political staff differently and organizes the PMO differently. You can ask what the Chretien PMO was like, and former Chief of Staff Eddie Goldenberg has written a great book about it. You can ask what the Mulroney or Trudeau PMO was like. But I'm not sure it's too useful to ask what the PMO is like in general. And that makes is hard to develop a body of literature about what it does.

Greg Farries: And finally, is there any good advice or interesting anecdote you could share with those readers who might be interested in pursuing a career in politics.

Ian Brodie: Start at the local level. Nothing prepared me better for my work as chief of staff than spending years on riding campaigns and riding association politics. And start with party work as opposed to government or parliamentary work. Working for a minister is good experience, but working in a party's office is much better. Finally, when you first get into political work full-time, have an idea of when you're going to get out and stick to it.