The year Peter MacKay last vied to become prime minister, his first bold step of the new political season lasted one day. In early 2003, shortly before he threw in his hat for the Progressive Conservative leadership, he announced that he wouldn’t be entering his 20-gauge shotgun on the Liberal government’s controversial firearms registry. This was principle, not politics, he told his riding’s New Glasgow Evening News: “I’m not doing it for a statement.”
Word that an Opposition MP and former Crown prosecutor intended to disobey the law zipped from Nova Scotia to Ottawa. The next day, MacKay reversed, saying in a release that, even though he opposes the registry, he does “respect the rule of law.”
Is this a short-lived kerfuffle from MacKay’s ancient political history? Yes. Is he the only candidate in the current leadership race with an archive of public remarks that is deep enough to trawl? Without question. But one day of gun-law defiance 17 years ago becomes less trivial when seen within the pattern of blunders and messes that MacKay seems to have been mopping up throughout his career—blunt rhetoric delivered on Monday that he’s forced to walk back by Wednesday. He strode into 2020’s Conservative leadership contest as what many saw as the right blend of old and new: a confident cabinet veteran and bridge-builder returning from political hiatus; a former athletic bachelor grown up into a gentler, 54-year-old dad of three. But he’s danced that clumsy two-step repeatedly over the first several months of his campaign, having to swiftly disavow campaign tweets that projected a tougher, nastier version of himself than he apparently wanted. Or having his own words used as cudgels against him.
MacKay’s experience, meanwhile, is proving a double-edged sword. He is the candidate in this race with nearly a decade in cabinet, but there are controversies scattered among his accomplishments. He’s the one who helped merge the PCs and Canadian Alliance into the powerful Conservative Party of Canada, but amid the deal-making was one notorious piece of deal-breaking. He’s the one offering crossover appeal to moderates, but may struggle to keep social conservatives within the party tent. And he’s the one who’s supposed to be most electable. Yet some Conservatives worry that a candidate so prone to unforced errors risks hurting his party right out of the gate.
MacKay launched his 2020 leadership bid at the same museum in Stellarton, N.S., he pointed out, where he leapt into politics in 1997, following in the footsteps of his father, Mulroney-era Tory minister Elmer MacKay. He began his PC leadership bid there, too, and in 2015, he came to Stellarton to announce he was leaving politics. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper flew east for his justice minister’s announcement, an honour MacKay was the only departing Conservative to receive. Harper spoke of his party’s co-founder as a “historic figure” admired by his colleagues. “A team guy,” he said, “in the deepest sense of the term.”
Former caucus-mates describe MacKay as a great listener—a sociable fellow who regularly made it to backbenchers’ weekly 10 p.m. pickup hockey games and wasn’t a puck hog. But being a “team guy” meant he didn’t really develop his own sphere of influence within the Harper government like Jim Flaherty or Jason Kenney did—despite having led the moderate PC faction that joined Harper’s western, more populist Alliance.
Though MacKay touts experience in the Conservative cabinet that steered Canada through the 2008 recession, Harper never entrusted him with an economic portfolio. MacKay briefly served in Foreign Affairs, projecting the image of a more muscular Canada abroad; then six years in Defence, a period dominated by the country’s combat mission in Afghanistan and its struggles to procure fighter jets; and finally in Justice, where the Conservative government’s harsher sentencing bills were well-suited to tough-on-crime positions MacKay had staked earlier in his career. (As PC justice critic in the early 2000s, MacKay voiced support for the death penalty in certain cases.) Though the oft-controlling Harper gave him more latitude than most ministers to speak publicly and hire staff, MacKay’s cabinet tenure consisted largely of fulfilling set roles within the Harper agenda. He had little room to show what many supposed to be his Red Tory colours. Truth is, MacKay is more of a “purple Tory,” says Ontario MP and supporter Karen Vecchio. And while rival candidate Erin O’Toole has branded himself the contest’s “true blue” Conservative, MacKay eschews such colour labels, warning they’re too divisive.
Harper’s appreciation for him is all the more striking given the former PM’s noted impatience for others’ slip-ups. “Everyone made mistakes. His were more regular,” one Conservative cabinet aide says of MacKay. To be sure, they tended not to be government-crippling screw-ups, but rather embarrassments to the minister himself—like when he incorrectly told the California governor in 2011 that his state bordered British Columbia; or when he praised France for backing Britain in the War of 1812 (they sided with the Yanks); or when he caught flak for wearing a gun lobbyist’s T-shirt saying “no compromise” at a 2014 fundraiser. (MacKay’s excuse was that a veteran asked him to put it on.)
One incident dogged him for several years: his flight in 2010 on a Cormorant military search-and-rescue helicopter from a fishing holiday in remote Newfoundland, expediting his commute to a government announcement. Beyond the cost and questionable use of a search aircraft, there was the then-defence minister’s explanation he was observing a special rescue demonstration: government documents later stated the trip was “under the guise” of training.
MacKay never faced demotion for such miscues, and ended his time in government in 2015 battle-scarred yet praiseworthy in the eyes of his boss. He didn’t suffer too dearly for that one-day flirtation with flouting the gun registry in 2003, either—it became one of the flip-flops his PC leadership opponents accused him of, but those attacks didn’t erode his lead. But a greater reversal came to define his brief party leadership.
To win the PC helm on the contest’s fourth ballot, MacKay wooed the endorsement of rival David Orchard—a devoutly anti-free-trade maverick whom Joe Clark had called a “tourist” within the Tories, though one with sizable clout. In a convention-hotel suite, MacKay and Orchard signed a notorious pen-scrawled deal pledging, among other things, no merger with the Canadian Alliance or joint Tory-Alliance candidacies. “He talked about how he was the kind of person that could be trusted,” Orchard recalls. While controversial, the pact seemed politically benign at the time, MacKay has since said, since there was little effort on either side to fuse the parties. The deal did allow talks with the Alliance, which MacKay now posits as a loophole of sorts (although the document explicitly ruled out the ultimate outcome he pursued).
His first secret meeting with Harper came four weeks after MacKay became PC leader, and the MacKay-Harper agreement that put the lie to the one with Orchard took four more months. MacKay phoned Orchard the day he announced the merger, admitting he expected the former candidate to be furious, Orchard recalls: “He seemed somewhat regretful.” To MacKay, history vindicates his decision. “In politics, you have to be adept at, you know, dealing with circumstances as they arise,” he says in an interview.
The Alliance merger infuriated Orchard and some PC stalwarts. But it proved popular among party members, who overwhelmingly blessed the marriage in a ratification vote. Harper went on to easily win the leadership; MacKay, worn down by blistering criticism over his betrayal of Orchard, did not contest. Monte Solberg, a former Alliance MP and cabinet minister who now endorses MacKay’s leadership bid, gives him credit for not quitting politics in that intense period. “He did an about-face on this, and paid a price,” Solberg says. “His credibility was hurt by that, but he also built a great party.”
MacKay has stated that as Conservative leader he’ll accomplish two things simultaneously—attract “more moderate, more centrist” voters in a general election, and preserve the party unity that’s lasted 17 years. Social conservatives are wary of that latter commitment from a candidate who’s avowedly pro-choice and supports LGBTQ rights. MacKay says he’ll make sure they feel listened to, and points to several so-con MPs who support him, such as former minister Ed Fast (one of several MPs who backed Erin O’Toole in the 2017 race). Fast says Conservatives in his riding, in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, often ask about MacKay’s stance on moral issues like abortion; he tries to stress other policy issues where they’re likelier to agree with MacKay. “The majority of voters in our party are themselves pragmatists,” he says.
However, for those who vote primarily on their social conservative values, MacKay may have lost the race before entering when he said last October that such issues “hung around Andrew Scheer’s neck like a stinking albatross.” For social conservatives, disagreement on the part of a moderate is one thing; disdain is another. “No one will have their deeply held beliefs dismissed as ‘stinking albatrosses’ under Erin O’Toole’s leadership,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wrote in his endorsement of MacKay’s rival, himself a social moderate. MacKay defended himself in part by noting the albatross was a reference to a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem (“stinking,” though, was MacKay’s own embellishment). And it was Liberals, not Scheer himself, he noted, who gave the outgoing Tory leader dead-bird neckwear. “It might have been a little raw at the time,” MacKay later conceded about the quip.
MacKay had to tamp down rumours he’d been plotting a leadership bid well before Scheer announced in December he’d leave. His campaign’s rocky start indeed suggests a lack of solid advance work: in early weeks, MacKay had to disavow messages that organizers put out on his behalf. First, a petty-sounding tweet about Justin Trudeau billing his Liberal leadership organization for spa and yoga services; and weeks later, a social-media message that praised vigilantes in Alberta who dismantled an Indigenous protest blockade. In each case, MacKay has said he was upset with what campaigners posted, and hadn’t seen the messages before they went up. He explains some members of the team he built in January—a hodgepodge of longtime MacKay supporters, Doug Ford organizers and part of the core behind Maxime Bernier’s runner-up Conservative leadership bid in 2017—didn’t really know him, and vice versa. “Some would say they should be more adept at the sensitivities around these issues,” he says. “And maybe to some degree I was over-reliant on them.”
MacKay attributes the early stumbles to “rust” after four years away from politics with a Toronto law office, advising businesses on overseas compliance issues. Then it happened again, in late April. Frustrated by O’Toole’s mockery of MacKay’s fundraising boasts, campaigners sent a memo in MacKay’s name to supporters chiding his rival for supporting a transgender rights bill in 2013, which MacKay had opposed—labelling it with the notoriously transphobic term “bathroom bill.” A day later, a campaign statement explained the incendiary language was used “in haste,” adding MacKay would himself now support the anti-discrimination measure if asked to vote again.
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O’Toole’s campaign has been quick to attack the cycle of firm-sounding comments and retractions, casting MacKay as a wavering Conservative the Liberals will gobble alive. A senior Conservative source who supports MacKay’s campaign has similar worries: “He’s not careful enough in what he says and how he says it.”
The pandemic may have helped Canadians overlook his campaign miscues, as well as his emphatic pitch in March—at the health crisis’s frenzied peak—to keep the leadership vote on schedule, hours before the party made the rational step to postpone. In June, observers witnessed a Peter MacKay capable of personal growth and improvement. Mocked for his poor French at the campaign’s outset, he proved passably conversant during the party’s French-language debate—not fluent, by any means, but after months of drills, not substantially worse than O’Toole.
This return also features MacKay in a different chapter of his personal life. Behind him are the bachelor days: the successive years of being named sexiest MP on the Hill, the gossip about high-wattage relationships, and his extremely public 2005 breakup with fellow MP and auto parts executive Belinda Stronach. In 2012, he wed human rights activist Nazanin Afshin-Jam, and soon afterwards, at age 48, became a first-time father. In retrospect, he saw his regular hockey and rugby playing into his 40s as the wrong life priorities, a “selfish and emotionally unhealthy way to live,” MacKay said in a recent book about prominent Canadian fathers. He quit Parliament in 2015 with his second child on the way, and says if he’d run for Conservative leadership three years ago, he’d likely never have had his third. MacKay knows first-hand the toll political life takes on families: his MP father divorced his mom, Macha, when Peter was eight. He was mainly raised by Macha, a counsellor and peace activist to whom he’d later, pointedly, send cards on Father’s Day. The risk of putting pressure on family made him reluctant to emulate Elmer MacKay’s decades-long Ottawa career in the first place. “It always had a daunting feel to it for me, to go into politics,” he says. “In some ways it still does.”
Yet he’s leapt back, and is gradually finding steadier footing—as of this writing, nearly two months flub-free. Ed Fast sees the same political appeal in MacKay he did in their Conservative government days. He calls it “gravitas,” but struggles to describe it: “Some people step onto the stage and naturally draw the attention of the audience,” he says. “I can’t put my finger on what it is. Is it looks? Is it size? Is it the eyes? Is it the tone of voice?”
They’re the sort of comments once applied to the leader MacKay aspires to defeat: Justin Trudeau. Telegenic and charismatic, with the promise of centrist appeal and name recognition inherited from his father. The parallels will make some Conservatives cringe, while giving hope to others who crave victory. His last few weeks should buoy them, but it’s a version of MacKay they’ll need more of: the one who marches forth without having to backtrack.
This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Man vs. himself.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.