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Fear and Loathing on the Conservative Leadership Trail

Canadian Politics

Former Canadian Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay, and US Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, chat informally before sitting down for a meeting in the Pentagon on Sept. 28, 2012. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Polonius would likely have approved of former Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay’s recent tweet signalling his intention to once again enter the fray for party leadership. Although not particularly witty in the contemporary sense, his statement was brief. MacKay immediately became the media front-runner.

MacKay’s political career dates back to 1997 when he was elected as the MP for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough. A member of the permanent political class (his father Elmer MacKay had been the MP for Central Nova from 1971 to 1983), MacKay has a lot of experience on The Hill, including cabinet level posts in Foreign Affairs, National Defence, and Justice in the Harper government. By all accounts, he is a strong candidate.

Despite winning 6.15 million votes (the second largest vote count of any previous Conservative Party leader behind Brian Mulroney’s 1984 landslide win with 6.2 million), speculation about Andrew Scheer’s replacement began immediately following the last federal election on October 21. Expectations had been higher in the wake of Trudeau’s poor first-term performance record. MacKay led the chorus of betrayal, trashing Scheer in a statement to the Wilson Centre on October 30: “To use a good Canadian analogy, it was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net.”

So much for loyalty and solidarity within the party.

The cynical nose detected a whiff of not-so hidden agenda in the air. On CTV’s Power Play, Garry Keller (former Chief of Staff to former Party Leader Rona Ambrose) said that MacKay’s commentary was “extremely unhelpful” to Scheer. “If it was such an easy breakaway,” he asked, “why didn’t he run for leader in the first place?” Good question.

Competing against the Trudeau brand, the prevailing ecology of celebrity politics handicapped Scheer from the beginning. Despite MacKay being dubbed the “sexiest male MP in the House of Commons” by the Hill Times, the Conservatives don’t really have a comparable brand; or, for that matter, anyone with the jet-setting, tinsel-town camera charisma of the prime minister.

The psychology of Hollywood now governs political contests and the telephoto lens of fame has craven appetites. The primary leadership search term should be “Smooth Operator”. Given, however, that Justin Trudeau had no qualifications whatsoever to run the country when he won the Liberal Party leadership in 2013, one would think that a suitable camera-friendly Conservative candidate should be easy to find. Celine Dion perhaps, or Justin Bieber (the two Justins?). Online publishers salivate at the clickbait potential.

Recent changes to the Conservative Party leadership election rules, however, are designed to limit the candidate field to those with significant financial resources or friends in high places—otherwise known as generous corporate sponsors. In what some consider an “elitist” move, the Leadership Election Organizing Committee has upped the ante for aspiring hopefuls; increasing the entrance fee to $300,000 (the highest in any leadership race, of any party, at any time), and requiring candidates to obtain the support of 3,000 party members in order to qualify. Businessman Bryan Brulotte became the first casualty of the new rules, announcing his withdrawal from the race on January 14.

In the last federal election, Andrew Scheer failed to make gains in the East and ended up landlocking the Conservative Party in Western Canada.

So, who will be running against MacKay at the June 27 leadership convention? His opposition so far includes Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, MP Marilyn Gladu, Alberta businessman Rick Peterson (12th place in the 2017 leadership race), MP Derek Sloan from Hastings–Lennox and Addington, and Richard Decarie, a social conservative, from Québec. Former Conservative interim Leader Rona Ambrose and former deputy prime minster, PC party leader, and Québec Premier Jean Charest have announced that they will not run. Charest would likely have been viewed by the party as a potential fence-mender in Québec, where the Conservatives hold only ten seats out of 78, while Ambrose would have likely boosted the female vote.

This will not be MacKay’s first foray into Party leadership. Rumblings first began about him in 2000 as a possible successor to Joe Clark. In 2001 he was appointed House Leader of the doomed PC-DR Parliamentary Coalition Caucus. When Clark announced his resignation in 2002, MacKay’s name floated to the surface once again. He entered the 2003 leadership race as the front-runner. Due to some secret “back-roomery” with opponent David Orchard, which subsequently came to be known as the “Orchard Deal”, MacKay won the leadership race with 65 percent of the vote. As details of the “Orchard Deal” surfaced, MacKay came under intense criticism from within the Party. The Globe and Mail described his leadership arrival as “stillborn”, reporting that the party had emerged from the leadership convention “…grievously weakened and even less united than when it entered the convention.” Party division resulted in a merger between the Progressive Conservative Party and Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance on September 15. Harper became Leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada, appointing MacKay as Deputy Leader in 2004. Following the win of 2006, Harper appointed MacKay to Cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The following year he was shuffled to National Defence, and again in 2012 to Minister of Justice and Attorney General.

In 2015 MacKay announced that he would not run in the upcoming election. Following the Conservative defeat at the polls in October, his name once again arose as a possible successor to Harper. The following year he declined to run in the leadership race and joined heavyweight international law firm Baker MacKenzie as a partner.

On October 10, 2017 it was reported that MacKay supporters were preparing for a leadership race in the event that Scheer lost the upcoming election. MacKay denied the rumour and said that he was supporting Scheer and “not entertaining that at all.” Just twenty days later, on October 30, he made his statement to the Wilson Centre criticizing Scheer.

MacKay was embroiled in controversy while in Cabinet: the F-35 cost increase cover-up</a, during which time he was photographed in a cockpit (which later turned out to be a model) costing taxpayers $47,000; “Cormorant-gate” which revealed that he had spent $3 million in taxpayer money shuttling around in government aircraft, infamously to a private Newfoundland fishing lodge in a Cormorant Search and Rescue helicopter; the 100% cost overrun in Libya during 2012; and his 2014 Mother’s Day–Father’s Day email gaff which outraged feminists. MacKay was described in 2011 as “Parliament’s crown prince of pork” by NDP MP Pat Martin. “This government is broke,” he said. “We can’t have a globe-trotting Minister of Defence, living in the lap of luxury like some kind of a Gucci-shoes Conservative gadfly from the 1980s.”

British publisher Sir Ernest Benn famously observed “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”

MacKay now stands a good chance of becoming the next Conservative Party leader. How he would fare against the Trudeau brand in 2023 remains to be seen. If his Iscariot treatment of Scheer is any indication, it will likely be a nasty campaign.

Ken Grafton is a writer based in Wakefield, Quebec, just north of Ottawa. His background includes global executive level experience in engineering and telecommunications.

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