Ottawa Citizen

Canadian Tire exec new PMO spokesman

Nicol follows MacDonald, will be this PM’s 9th communicat­ions chief

- JASON FEKETE With files from Dylan Robertson, Ottawa Citizen jfekete@ottawaciti­

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top spokesman is resigning to go back to the private sector, in another major shakeup of the prime minister’s inner circle just months before a federal election.

Jason MacDonald, Harper’s director of communicat­ions, is leaving the Prime Minister’s Office just seven months before a fall federal election.

Rob Nicol, an executive at Canadian Tire and former senior staffer in Mike Harris’s Ontario Progressiv­e Conservati­ve government, will replace MacDonald as Harper’s director of communicat­ions. Nicol will be Harper’s ninth communicat­ions director since he took office in 2006.

The PMO did not offer immediate comment, but the transition is expected to happen over the next few weeks.

The departure of Harper’s chief spokesman comes on the heels of John Baird’s resignatio­n as Foreign Affairs minister on Feb. 3, which forced the prime minister into a mini-cabinet shuffle.

Nicol will be responsibl­e for selling the Conservati­ve government’s message leading up to the Oct. 19 election.

Harper’s Conservati­ves and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have been neck and neck in many polls as the parties prepare for the campaign.

Tim Powers, a Conservati­ve strategist and vice-chairman of Summa Strategies in Ottawa, said people shouldn’t put too much weight on what the loss of the prime minister’s spokesman means to the government because it happens so frequently.

“Given this particular position and the fact that eight obituaries have been written already, I hardly think it will be seen as a moment where the government’s longevity is threatened, or ability to get re-elected is threatened because this position has changed again,” he said.

Powers said he knows Nicol and believes he has done a good job selling Canadian Tire’s message and product to Canadians — a skill that will be portable to the PMO, as the government looks to sell itself once again to the Canadian public on the election trail.

Nicol’s biggest challenge will be to quickly integrate into government and understand the environmen­t in a critical election year, he said.

“He’s coming into an environmen­t where the subject of the election, the focus of the election is going to be, in part, if the opposition succeeds, the prime minister,” Powers said. “So he’s going to be playing a lot of defence, and he needs to be ready to put on his Bobby Orr skates.”

MacDonald is bilingual, but it’s uncertain whether Nicol is fluent in French.

MacDonald, who is married and a father of two young girls, will take a job in Ottawa with Hill+Knowlton‎, a public affairs and government relations firm, where he’ll do corporate communicat­ions, sources say.

He exits the PMO after less than 18 months in a job widely known in Parliament Hill circles to be gruelling.

“The news cycle is now a news stream, and there are more technologi­es to cover. If you let it, it can fill every waking hour and the hours when you’re sleeping. Your brain never stops grinding. Your attention is always divided,” said Andrew MacDougall, Harper’s former communicat­ions director, who was succeeded by MacDonald in September 2013.

“But it’s the opportunit­y of a lifetime, too.”

Nicol leaves the role of vicepresid­ent of corporate affairs for Canadian Tire and has been with the company for five years, his LinkedIn profile says.

He served in the Ontario premier’s office as director of communicat­ions for Harris from 2000 to 2002, before taking an executive role for eight years with 407 ETR, the privately operated toll highway in the Greater Toronto Area.

Nicol holds a master of public administra­tion and undergradu­ate history degree from Queen’s University, his profile says.

“Just a few months out from the election, losing a top political operative is a tough break for a tired, scandal-plagued PMO,” NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said in an email.

“I certainly wish Mr. MacDonald the best, and wish Mr. Nicol luck in his new position. He will need it.”

He’s (Rob Nicol) going to be playing a lot of defence, and he needs to be ready to put on his Bobby Orr skates.

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Rob Nicol

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