Exit Peter MacKay, stage centre-right

He helped form the modern Conservative Party. He leaves a slim legacy. Paul Wells writes from Ottawa.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay appears at Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 27, 2015. Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay will announce later today that he is leaving federal politics. Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Justice Minister Peter MacKay appears at Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 27, 2015. Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Listen: Wells in conversation with Cormac MacSweeney on MacKay’s exit

And so farewell Peter MacKay, cheerful and well-liked Nova Scotia Tory whose departure from politics will, apparently, be announced later this afternoon. He accomplished more than most in politics. He leaves without a lot to show for it.

It began, for those of us watching in Ottawa at least, in the aftermath of the 1997 federal election. Just about everybody had reason to be disappointed that year—Jean Chrétien’s Liberals lost seats, including all they held in Nova Scotia, and barely escaped with a majority; the Bloc Québécois’s new leader Gilles Duceppe wore a hairnet to a photo op and lost seats; the NDP barely clawed its way back from oblivion; Preston Manning’s Reform party fell far short of the breakthrough he’d hoped (“It’s very… difficult,” he told a camera crew on election night). But Jean Charest might have been most dejected. With nearly as many votes as Reform, his Progressive Conservatives managed to win only 20 seats, still stuck in fifth place in a fragmented, Italian-style Pizza Parliament, doomed to wait at question period for table scraps for another four years.

Just about the only bright spot for Charest during the year that followed was a few of his recruits, young and smart and clubbable: John Herron from New Brunswick, Diane St.-Jacques from Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Scott Brison from some uncanny Boys From Brazil Joe Clark cloning operation, and a bicultural couple who soon began making headlines as the Tory caucus’s “Batman and Robin” — André Bachand and Peter MacKay.

MacKay was 32, strapping and broad-shouldered, son of a Mulroney-era cabinet stalwart, a lawyer by training, and he clearly had some kind of source pipeline into the penal system, always a reliable fount of upsetting news. MacKay in English and Bachand in French would bat back the Chrétien cabinet’s ears, day after day, with the kind of question an opposition politician dreams of, because the questions established (a) the Liberals were presiding over a mess (b) the Tories knew more about what was going on than the hapless solicitor general, Andy Scott. Hopes for two great political careers were born.

John Geddes: The many battle scars of Peter MacKay
Aaron Wherry: Peter MacKay and the waning Progressive Conservatives

But in the Progressive Conservatives in the late ’90s, hope didn’t get you far. Charest was dragged kicking and screaming out of the PC leadership in mid-1998 because he was needed by the Quebec provincial Liberals. Herron and Brison endorsed Joe Clark, who had always believed he would again be prime minister and was returning to make it so. MacKay backed Hugh Segal, who was a hair to Clark’s right and was in the race essentially to stop Clark. I took great pleasure in quoting the lines from Segal’s memoirs about Clark, from when they were both trying to save the country on Brian Mulroney’s behalf. Segal was not complimentary.

Segal told me later (and here I quote from memory) that MacKay acted as a sort of guide to Tory politics as it is practised in Nova Scotia, where memory runs deep. Segal proposed to show up at a Tim Hortons at 8:30 one morning and shake hands. MacKay warned him that, if he wanted to go to that particular Tims, it had to be at 7:30. Segal wondered why there’d be a difference. “Well, at that Tims, it’s Tories until 8, then Liberals after. If we show up at 8:30, there’ll be fighting.”

Segal lost that fight. Clark fulfilled Segal’s expectations more than his own. By 2003 the PCs were looking for yet another leader. MacKay ran, as did Brison, Jim Prentice, and David Orchard, the Saskatchewan farm protectionist.

This is turning, I realize as I write it, into a funhouse-mirror alternative history of all the things Canadian Conservatism might have become. Brison, who came out as gay just before the leadership campaign began, wanted to be the PCs’ anti-Stephen Harper, frankly small-government in economic matters and frankly liberal on social issues. Prentice was a candidate of business orthodoxy, tempting to a party that had spent a decade subsisting in the forest on nuts and berries. Orchard was oddly but admirably faithful to a current of economic nationalism that had been popular when he was a teenager.

Ten days before the leadership convention, I sat down with MacKay in Toronto’s Albany Club for an interview, which I used for my first column at Maclean’s, my new employer. MacKay was running on nostalgia for a day when things seemed to come more easily to Tories.

I did the cruel columnist trick of letting MacKay talk. The results were … well.

I asked: why is any Tory happy with a new poll showing the party at 18 per cent in voter support? Why won’t luck break your way?  “Well, it’s starting to break our way,” he said. There’s “a feeling in the country of a generational shift.”

Ah. So people will vote Conservative just because the leader is in his 30s? Well, no. “It’s not going to just fall into our lap …  that poll you’re referring to has 51.1 per cent of the people  declaring their allegiance to the Liberal party.”

Ah. So the Conservatives have to do something new to win votes? Well, no. Never mind that Liberal support, for instance. “It’s soft. It’s like all of these people sitting there in the Wal-Mart parking lot waiting for a better buy.”

Ah. So it’s going to fall in your laps after all? Well, no. “I  think much of this could turn on our ability to attract some excellent candidates.”  What, you never had any before? “We had some, Paul, in the last campaign. I thought we had some terrific candidates.” He paused, as  if to consider what fat lot of good all those terrific candidates did in 2000. “There’s also just that intangible ‘winnability’ factor, when people suddenly make up their mind: ‘You know, these
guys could actually win.’ ”

What gets people to that point? “Hard work.” Pause. “You know, presenting policies that people believe in.” Or, on the other hand, not. “Y’know, you can articulate great policy and identify the issues but it’s the implementation that makes people believe.” Unfortunately, “you’ve got to get to government to do that.”

MacKay won that one, but it was close, Prentice was coming on in the stretch, and MacKay ended up signing a hand-written pact with Orchard designed to win the odd farmer’s support by promising him the PCs, still weak, would never give in to the predatory overtures of Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance. And then, within, like, weeks, MacKay and Harper started to talk.

It is hard to imagine a PC leader who would have resisted those urges. I had lunch in Montreal that summer with Hugh Segal, who’d written a whole book about what rotters the Reform/Alliance/Mike Harris crowd were, and all he had to say was, “We can’t go on like this. We have to figure out how to work together. Our donors won’t give to two parties. Paul Martin is coming.” And on and on. Prentice, who had stepped aside as a PC candidate so Harper could get into Parliament in 2002, would have negotiated a merger. Brison, I suppose, would have resisted—he wound up turning Liberal in time for the 2004 election, demonstrating an unfortunate tendency, for a banker, to buy at the top of the market—but resisting would have wrecked his career, because Harper would have poked around in the PC caucus for other suitors.

In the end it was MacKay who brokered the merger, against the plain meaning of his written word, and many former PCs will never forgive him. The talks with Harper weren’t easy for him. He kept asking for concessions he imagined Harper couldn’t accept, and Harper kept accepting them. When he grew hesitant, Harper leaked damaging spin to the newspapers. MacKay wanted the new party’s leader to be chosen on terms that would benefit a candidate from the smaller PC legacy party. Harper wanted the selection to be based on equality among all members of the new party. Even here he conceded, confident he could win even with against that handicap.

Finally the thing was done. MacKay had won something better than a complete humiliating rout. The party’s 2004 platform would be the straight Venn-diagram intersection of pre-existing Alliance and PC policy books. MacKay had the honorific title of deputy leader. Candidates closer to the PC brand, Belinda Stronach and Tony Clement, ran for the leadership under rules that should have favoured them. Even after Harper won, he kept former Progressive Conservatives close—MacKay, Newfoundland’s Loyola Hearn, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Claude Nolin, Nova Scotia’s then-premier John Hamm.

When Harper managed to win the 2006 election, what surprised most observers wasn’t that he was presiding over some kind of Reform/Alliance greatest-hits tour but that he was taking pains to avoid that impression. Alberta Reform alumni like James Rajotte and, for years, Jason Kenney, were kept out of cabinet; MacKay and Hearn and Michael Fortier and even David Emerson were in. Tory alumni Keith Beardsley and Bruce Carson were in the PMO. Marjory LeBreton, who used to write long emails to me explaining why Stephen Harper must never be prime minister, became his trusted caucus den mother and conduit to Mulroney. In other cases, too close a PC association was fatal to Ottawa career aspirations. MacKay tried to hire Graham Fox, a former Joe Clark chief of staff and son of Mulroney press guru Bill Fox, as his first chief of staff. Harper’s PMO vetoed the hire. It was a balancing act, the whole thing was a balancing act, but in many cases, including MacKay’s, the balance leaned largely in a direction Harper’s former adversaries could live with.

And live MacKay did for nearly a decade in power, during which he held a succession of key portfolios: foreign affairs, defence, justice. Justice is where he ended up? It’s kind of hard to remember. Yes, justice.

His concrete legacy of achievement does not, at this writing, seem among the most robust. He announced he had asked German authorities to arrest Iran’s chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, in the beating death of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. That didn’t succeed. In Defence, MacKay was a strong advocate for proper recognition of civilians who served alongside Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, but neither he nor any other Western official could have much influence over the broader success of that mission.

His department found itself in a spectacular battle of leaks with Gen. Walter Natynczyk: after it emerged that Natynczyk had used a government Challenger jet to join his family on vacation, it emerged that MacKay had used a Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter to shorten travel times on a fishing trip. He will never live that down. In Justice, theoretically his natural home, he is remembered mostly for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Canada’s leading gun-nut hatchery for a photo op that was designed to make him look like he supported views he didn’t.

Every two years, roughly, the Conservatives have held a policy convention, and at every one it has fallen to MacKay to protect the leadership-selection rules he imposed on Harper against further amendment that would remove the disproportionate weight given to parts of the country that used to vote PC. (I could go into detail, but it’s all dreary.) But that reliable biennial confrontation, largely along PC-vs.-Alliance lines, is easy to exaggerate: another strong trend of recent conventions has been that most other differences don’t split along legacy-party lines. Today’s Harper Conservatives do disagree among themselves when they gather en famille, but they don’t disagree along consistent factional faultlines that suggest the party would easily fracture in Harper’s absence. MacKay did his work well in 2003, and has delivered a generation of Tory-rooted Conservatives into a large and complex Conservative party in which most of them feel right at home. You’ll read other analyses today that suggest MacKay’s departure portends the collapse of the Harper Conservative coalition. Enjoy those other analyses, because that is not the thesis I’m peddling here.

I don’t know anyone in Ottawa who dislikes MacKay. I have enjoyed all my conversations with him, even the ones that don’t read as flattering. Though he has often seemed to be singing a partisan song he didn’t write and doesn’t entirely like, if the Conservative party leadership became vacant next week (or next October) and he ran, he’d command considerable support. But it’s also possible to believe he is leaving, not to mount a comeback, but to leave. A popular bachelor through his 30s and into his 40s, he has well and truly settled down with his wife, the author and activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam. When I interviewed him on a weekend morning in 2013 at an Ottawa Tim Hortons (mercifully devoid of marauding Liberals) for my latest book, we spent the last few minutes of our session discussing family life; his son Kian would be born only a few weeks later. Parenthood changes your perspective on things. So does the realization you’ve been in Ottawa for almost 18 years, that your party’s fortunes have grown shaky in your Atlantic Canada home, and that if it’s ever going to be time to make a change, the cusp of 50 is a decent time to do it.

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