Peter MacKay's new job (Aug 16, 2007)

The Peter principle at work

By Stephen Kimbe


Was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to pluck Peter MacKay from the rock of Foreign Affairs and plop him into the hard place of Defence good for Peter MacKay’s career? Is it good for the country?

It’s far easier to answer the latter than the former.

Taking the real measure of MacKay has never been easy. Viewed through one end of the telescope, he is already an incredibly successful politician with an even brighter future. He is — to steal some of the news account descriptions of him this week — “ambitious,” “telegenic,” “a sure-footed communicator…” He’s also a 10-year parliamentary veteran, having won election four times. He’s been the leader of one national political party and the architect of another. With this week’s shuffle, he will have held down two of the most senior portfolios in government. And he’s not even 42.

There’s plenty of time yet for him to reach his ultimate goal of becoming Prime Minister Peter MacKay. Why not?

And yet…

And yet there’s always been something of the Fearless Fosdick about MacKay too. Like the accident prone, loyal-to-a-fault police officer in the old Li’l Abner cartoon — whose regularly, and often self-inflicted, bullet-riddled body inadvertently reveals his two-dimensional comic strip body — MacKay is less than he appears.

Most of Peter MacKay’s “less” has to do with the issue of principle and with the question of whether he has any.

The defining moment in his political career — what should have marked the end of the beginning of his meteoric rise to power but became instead the beginning of the end of his hopes — was what then-foe-now-friend Jason Kenny called his deal with the devil at the 2003 Progressive Conservative party’s leadership convention.

That was when MacKay, for reasons that can only be described as crass, struck a secret backroom pact with his more progressive leadership rival, David Orchard. MacKay pledged to review the party’s pro-North American Free Trade Pact policy he had previously supported, and promised, cross-his-heart, not to lead the party into a merger with the right-wing Canadian Alliance. In exchange, Orchard would throw his support behind MacKay and push him over the top in the final ballot of the leadership race.

Orchard kept his part of the bargain.

Less than six months later, of course, MacKay made another deal with another devil — Stephen Harper — totally abrogating the Orchard agreement and creating the unprogressive Conservative party.

That looking-out-for-number-one slipperiness set the pattern for MacKay. Consider his most recent flip-flop flap this spring over whether fellow Nova Scotia Tory MP Bill Casey should be punished for standing up for principle on the Atlantic Accord and voting against the federal budget.

Should Casey be punished?

No, he wouldn’t, MacKay promised in the House of Commons.

Yes, he was.

Oh, that. Getting kicked out of caucus was really Casey’s fault, MacKay blithely explained, because he had actually followed through on his principles — something MacKay clearly found difficulty understanding.

To make matters worse, MacKay, as the Toronto Star aptly noted this week, was “no blazing comet” as Foreign Affairs Minister.

In part, of course, that’s because Stephen Harper was really his own foreign minister. MacKay, in public at least, was mostly just mouthing words written in the PMO — from cheerleading support for failed American policies in Iraq to an unqualified thumbs up for Israel’s relentless bombing campaign against Lebanon last summer.

When MacKay did step out on his own, he often stumbled. Remember his fawning over his American counterpart, Condi Rice? More substantively, his department spent much of the past year not only denying that prisoners captured by Canadians in Afghanistan and turned over to local authorities were being tortured, for example, but also claiming no reports on Afghan human rights abuses even existed. When it turned out they did exist and that they revealed real fears prisoners were being subjected to torture and even murder, MacKay’s excuse was that he hadn’t read them.

So what can we expect from MacKay now that he’s Minister of National Defence?

Unfortunately, probably more of the same. We are at a critical point in the Afghan war. We need to have a serious national conversation about why we’re in that troubled country in the first place, what we’ve accomplished so far and whether there is a useful role for us there in the future.

We could use a man of principle to help lead that discussion. Unfortunately, this week’s cabinet shuffle only gave us a too-glib, me-first spinmeister. Which is almost certainly bad for the country.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.

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