Welcome, back Peter

I’ve spent a good chunk of my columnist’s career mocking Peter MacKay without ever having spent time in his company. And then I did. He seemed generous, thoughtful, far more complex than I’d given him credit for. But then he got back into politics. And became ‘that’ Peter MacKay again.

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 a 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.

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner May 11, 2020.

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