Is it the person or the persona? The person or the party? The campaign or the campaigner? Does it really even matter?

I’ve spent a good chunk of my columnist’s career mocking Peter MacKay without ever actually having spent time in his company.

MacKay was always just a dependable target, a talking contradiction, inevitably doing or saying something that invited the columnist’s arrow to the giant bullseye permanently pinned on his hypocritical forehead.

For example, MacKay won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003 by promising not to merge it with Stephen Harper’s right-wing Canadian Alliance, then turned around and arranged a shotgun marriage-of-convenience in hopes he would conveniently win the newly merged party’s leadership too.

Ooops, he didn’t.

And then there was that time he denigrated his former girlfriend — Tory millionaire-ess MP Belinda Stronach — as a “dog” in the House of Commons after she’d jilted him for the Liberals, and then denied he’d ever intended any such thing… after which he retreated to his family’s Nova Scotia farm to mend his broken heart, accompanied by his actual dog and a camera.

As defence minister, MacKay once commandeered a military helicopter to pick him up from a remote private fishing camp in Newfoundland, but then — of course — denied incontrovertible evidence he’d done exactly that.

Well, you get the picture.

When MacKay decided to retire from politics and retreat to the security of a big Toronto law firm in 2015, I was… professionally disappointed.

But then, last summer, our paths did finally cross. I was researching a biography of former Nova Scotia and federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough. She and MacKay had mostly been on opposite partisan sides, but sometimes — as in the case of the Westray law to hold corporations and executives criminally responsible for failing to provide safe workplaces for their employees — they worked together to achieve a common end. There was a personal connection too. MacKay’s mother and McDonough were longtime friends and allies in the international peace and women’s movements.

We met in his Toronto law office one sunny June morning. MacKay wasn’t only generous with his time and his recollections, but he was also thoughtful and far more complex as a human being than I’d given him credit for.

I came away kind of, sort of, mostly impressed, and wondering what I’d missed all those years…

And then this.

Not even two weeks after 22 Nova Scotians were murdered by a man with multiple guns — including high-powered assault weapons — Peter MacKay took to Twitter to declare he would “never take advantage of a tragedy like this to push a political agenda… As a Nova Scotian, I am outraged that Justin Trudeau is using our tragedy to punish law-abiding firearms owners across Canada.”

Taking advantage? By banning assault rifles no Canadian needs to own, let alone use?

Well, Peter, as another Nova Scotian, I am outraged at your misplaced outrage.

But not surprised.

MacKay, of course, is now back in the political fray as a candidate for the federal Conservative leadership and doing and saying whatever he thinks will help him win.

He announced his candidacy on Jan. 25, 2020, for a leadership campaign that was supposed to wrap up with a celebratory, full-house convention in Toronto at the end of June.

At the time, MacKay — a former senior Harper cabinet minister — was the front-runner, the presumptive winner of a contest pundits declared was his to lose.

And then he went about doing his usual best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Your may recall that, after now-lame-duck Tory leader Andrew Scheer failed to score on the open goal of Justin Trudeau’s ripe-for-the-picking government in last October’s federal election, MacKay — private citizen, Conservative elder statesman — wandered off to Washington to attack Scheer for allowing the Liberals to hang the “stinking albatross” of social conservatism on the Conservative campaign.

Stinking albatross? Wait a minute. Social conservatives…? Social conservatives who are now Conservative leadership voters?  Campaigning in Scheer’s Regina hometown early in March, MacKay expressed his regrets, explaining his comment “might have been a little raw at the time.”

You might be sensing a pattern here.

In late January, while still testing out his campaign bus’s training wheels, MacKay pointlessly attacked Justin Trudeau for expensing $876.95 for yoga and spa expenses way back when he was running for the Liberal leadership. He quickly walked it back, blaming his own Twitter team for the balls-up. “I want to keep the tone civilized,” he insisted to reporters. “I am not happy at the way that was put up on my site. And I voiced that to my team.”

The following month, while we were all simply worried about the economic impact of an Indigenous blockade of national rail lines — remember those carefree days before we had to worry about the impact of the shutdown of the entire world economy? — MacKay offered up an incendiary tweet about the “small gang of professional protesters and thugs,” and later appeared to encourage vigilantism.

Then, he sort-of walked that back too.

And so it has gone.

When COVID-19 came along and changed everything about everything, including the party’s leadership race — which will now be conducted by mail-in ballot in August with the winner likely declared in someone’s audience-free spare bedroom — MacKay’s stone-old cold response was to insist the campaign continue as if the world had not changed and people were not more worried about their lives than the life of a moribund Conservative party.

The problem for MacKay was that the race did continue, and it began to appear that his chief rival — another former Tory MP and cabinet minister named Erin O’Toole, who’d run third to Scheer in the 2017 leadership — was gaining on him, at least in fundraising.

O’Toole’s camp even publicly boasted about its money-churning successes and compared them to what it indicated were MacKay’s own less than stellar fundraising numbers.

So MacKay fired off his shot-for-shot fundraising letter, essentially calling O’Toole a liar and then damning him with what, in Tory circles, might be referred to as a “progressive” brush. “While I haven’t always agreed with [Erin], like when he voted in favour of the Transgender Rights ‘bathroom’ Bill in 2012, I’ve always respected that his motivations were positive,” MacKay wrote, adding: “But I’m not so sure anymore.”

Hear that dog whistle?

But… wait for it.

Soon after, MacKay’s spokesperson was dancing backward off that turntable too. “Mr. MacKay has consulted members of the LGBTQ community, including members of his team, and understands the term is narrow and carries a negative connotation. It was used in an email to members late last evening in haste as a point of reference and won’t be used again.”

If you think none of this makes logical sense, you’re clearly not a Tory voter — or at least not a Tory voter Peter MacKay is trying to reach.

The reality is that the party’s leadership vote will be conducted by preferential ballot, meaning voters will make their choices in preferential order. As the bottom-ranked candidates get pushed off the ballot, their votes will be divided among the remaining contenders in the race.

MacKay and O’Toole are both considered slightly to the left of Atilla the Harper, so they’re both trying to win first-ballot support from those who might at least watch the occasional Gay Pride parade on TV.

But they also know the ultimate margin of victory might actually come from second-ballot supporters of the two never-will-be candidates, Somebody Lewis and Somebody Sloan, who are both seen as social conservatives, if not Deep State conspiracy theorists.

Sloan, for example, recently tweeted in a racist slur that Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, was working for the Chinese government and demanded she be fired. Many Tories rightly denounced his comments and some even called for Sloan to be tossed from caucus.

O’Toole, who is still in caucus, demurred.

For his part, MacKay has maintained a convenient radio silence.

Why? The simple answer is that neither front-runner wants to alienate Sloan’s supporters because scraping the very bottom of the social conservative barrel might be crucial to victory on a second ballot.

That tells you everything you need to know about today’s Conservative party.

And about Peter MacKay, who will do whatever he thinks it will take — no matter how often and how far he has to stretch truth and credibility — to win.

Welcome back, Peter. I missed you.

Editor’s note: As originally published, this article contained a metaphor that disparages a disabled community. We apologize, and have taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. To the writer, (who I admire) keep writing about Peter’s failures and lack of conscience, empathy and understanding of a diverse Canada. Peter was born privileged. He joined a privileged profession and consequently appointed 9 members of his wedding party to act as Nova Scotia Supreme Court and Court of Appeal justices for life. This inherent entitlement to adulthood was born out of self-interest and croniysim. Even Evan Solomon (Power and Politics – CTV) had to tell Peter in prime time in March 2020 that we shouldn’t be having a leadership race. “Because there is a pandemic”, Evan said. Peter didn’t seem to know this. He didn’t realize how inappropriate his remarks were to the viewing public. Peter also bragged about making a pile of easy money to CBC.ca host George Stroumboulopoulos on a Sunday night in January or February 2020. Peter is and was cut out of the same cloth as Stephen Harper – we cannot have another Harper again.

  2. I don’t particularly like the tone of this article in respect to the denigration of conservatives. I have to assume that the writer is a liberal with the liberal bias of always believing he/she is right and everyone else isn’t.

    And there was no mention in the piece about Peter’s involvement in NATO, and could never envision a world without war being an option- same as Liberals- that’s the kind of leader we need- a leader ( maybe a woman would have more courage ), who does not consider war an option.

    To the writer ( who I admire ). Stop blowing your anti- conservative horn.

  3. Like Justin or not, one of the things that was reinforced for me during the recent daily news conferences from Rideau Cottage is the importance of having a fluently bilingual prime minister, especially during a national crisis. I thought almost daily about how difficult and awkward the situation would have been with someone like Peter MacKay at the helm. Parts of every prepared statement needing to be read in his abysmal French, and every incoming question from French media reporters having to be relayed twice through a translator. Stephen Harper, like him or not, took that responsibility seriously and worked hard to make his French passable. Could any Conservative seriously consider that functional French was unnecessary for the role of prime minister? Could any clear-minded person consider voting for PM for PM?

    1. It is assumed in order to qualify as a candidate for the leader of a political party, you had to be fluently bi-lingual. Acquiring fluency in an alternate language (French) other than English is the evidential standard of qualification. Peter has not studied. If he has studied, he has failed to speak and write the French language with fluency. Peter clearly does not qualify.

  4. Two NS Tory friends I respect (I use the word Tory rather than Conservative out of respect for them) have in the past praised MacKay as having leadership potential. They may have harboured fond hopes for him because MacKay appeared relatively urbane and relatively congenial compared to many CPC MLAs and MPs. Very relatively I would say especially in light of recent events.
    Lest we lament the near demise of Red Tories, we should recall that they were often from upper crust backgrounds with elite educations who thought they should rule the old PC party as of right. There was a time when the PCs in Canada, the British Conservative party and even the Republican party were hierarchical institutions whose members usually defered to leaders they saw as their social superiors. No more. Those parties are now more “democratic”, that is, more reflective of what their bases truly think and feel.

  5. Full disclosure – For a long time, I have known and liked Peter – the person, not the politics. But I have to wonder: is anything more political than initiating commentary about what one would or would not do in response to a tragedy?
    As mentioned in the Covid-19 article – everything is political when politicians have to act. Therefore, promising not to take action once elected PM is a bit of a “dead dog.” He will have to eat those words, too.

  6. I was not surprised at Peter McKay’s comments about the timing of Trudeau’s plans to ban certain types of firearms. Perhaps I should say that that I was shocked and appalled. Most things politicians do are done for
    “political” purposes. But what struck me about McKay’s comments about the proposed firearms restrictions was that it reminded me of Trump accusing Democrats of seeking political advantage in questioning his actions related to the Covid19 pandemic.

  7. As a voter one has to try to pin down where a leader, and party, stand on various issues to attempt to determine whether or not the whole picture is something that one would agree with, and more importantly, trust.

    How can anyone get that with someone like Mr. McKay? In the tradition of purest politicians, he seems to be willing to take almost any position to garner support. An effective politician may be successful doing this, but Mr. McKay executes on it as poorly today as he ever did, as evidenced by the backlash and eroding party support.

    This suggests that his problem is mostly about his character, no?

    1. I commented about this in the other article about the gun ban, but it looks like a large majority of shotguns, including single shot ones, are now prohibited. Bill Blair did tweet that the bill does not target ordinary shotguns, but tweets by politicians aren’t actually legislation. Although the nominal bore diameter of a 10 – gauge shotgun is 19.something mm, and under the 20mm limit, most shotguns manufactured in the last 40 years are bored to larger sizes, with a smaller section towards the end of the barrel. Most 10 and 12 gauge shotguns are therefore prohibited. Twitter is not part of the legal process in Canada, and the RCMP has to follow the May 1 (May Day?) Order-In-Council. Thanks to our ingenious legislators, a new Order-In-Council revising the shotgun rule is impossible, and Parliament must pass a law now to undo the autocratic orders announced on May 1.

      This is why we have a parliament. Given that the new firearms laws have minimal real-world consequences for two years, there was no tangible benefit to carrying out the prohibitions instead of waiting until when Parliament re-opens. With parliament open and the opposition party involved, the changes in gun laws would have been far more sensible and consistent.

  8. For the record, it wasn’t “his actual dog”, he borrowed it from a neighbour for the interview.

    1. Yes, that’s what I understood to be the case too – making the woe-is-me look even more contrived. I guess the dog was comfortable enough with him to stay put, but it wasn’t his.

      1. Him and Justin….two peas at opposite ends of the same pod. Both where they are because of a much more intelligent father. Although I’ll give Peter credit for having a law degree, which is somewhat above the qualifications of the Poseur-in-Chief. If Justin could find time to walk out in the street in front of a big Mack we would have Ms Freeland as Prime Minister – a vast improvement.