When Andrew Scheer announced he was stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada after failing to lead his party to victory in the last election, the murmurs started. First in the back halls and dark alleys around Canada’s Parliament building, but soon louder, on Twitter and Facebook. The murmurs of a name…
It was no surprise to political watchers when the long running Conservative politician announced he would be throwing his name into the hat for Conservative leader. And now with other big names like Rona Ambrose and Pierre Poilievre announcing they would not be seeking the leadership, MacKay appears to have all but clinched the title of Conservative leader… Or at least, it looked like that at first. But after a turbulent start to his campaign, confidence may be waning in his ability to lead his party.
To those who have been paying attention to Canadian politics for the last few years, Peter McKay is no stranger. But he’s been taking a break from politics since 2015, so many might not be familiar with him.
MacKay grew up around politics. His dad, Elmer MacKay, was a Progressive Conservative MP from 1971–1983, and served as a Minister in Joe Clark’s government. Few who knew him were surprised when Peter MacKay sought public office, and he was elected to Parliament in 1997 as a Progressive Conservative.
MacKay was seen as a fresh face for the party, which was beginning to look stale to the average Canadian voter. He was a magnetic speaker in the House of Commons, and was even voted Sexiest Male MP by the Hill Times several times (yes, that’s a real thing). MacKay was shaping up to be a big player in Canadian politics, even seen as leadership material.
When Joe Clark resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 2002, MacKay ran on a platform of building a “big tent” for Canadian conservatives. While he won the leadership race, he far from united the conservative movement — or even his own party. Stephen Harper (a name most will be familiar with) was then the leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, a rival conservative party, and painted the party as fractured, establishment, and unable to capture more right wing conservative voters.
In 2003, after long talks behind the scenes, MacKay announced that he and Steven Harper were supporting the establishment of the Conservative Party of Canada, to be a big tent that could fit both the center-right members of the Progressive Conservatives, and the further right Canadian Alliance… A united party that might be strong enough to take on Prime Minister Paul Martin in the next election.
The merger was successful, and the Conservative Party of Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper and with MacKay as deputy leader, would go on to win the next election and form government for nearly a decade.
Peter MacKay led several high profile portfolios while in Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Following the 2006 election, he was selected as Minister of Foreign Affairs. He would later go on to serve as Minister of National Defense, and Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
While he had several successes during his time as a Minister, he was certainly not without scandal. In September 2011, media outlets reported that MacKay had spent over $3 million to travel around the country and internationally, including requesting a search and rescue helicopter to pick him up from a fishing trip, and using a government Challenger aircraft to fly to his riding in Nova Scotia to attend a lobster dinner. In 2006, there are even reports that MacKay referred to Belinda Stronach, another MP who happened to also be his ex-girlfriend, as a dog (though MacKay denies this happened).
In 2015, MacKay saw the writing on the walls for the Conservative’s upcoming defeat against Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, and announced he wouldn’t be seeking reelection.
When Stephen Harper resigned as Conservative leader after his defeat, many saw MacKay was one of the assumed front runners in the race to replace him. But in a surprising turn, MacKay decided not to run, and Andrew Scheer was chosen to lead the party. Scheer would go on to lose the upcoming election, allowing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party a second term — though Scheer did succeed in preventing a majority government.
2020 Leadership Bid — So Far
Finally, after rumblings and predictions galore, Peter MacKay announced he would finally be seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. He entered the race as the clear front-runner — many saying it was more of a coronation than a campaign with early polling putting him as much as 30 points ahead of his nearest competitor.
But since his announcement, his publicity has been less than stellar. He kicked off his campaign with his “Canada is free because Canadians keep it free” video that felt more at place at a flashy arcade than as a political ad. It was a confusing, jumbled set of odd phrases on a flashing technicolour background, and it didn’t seem to resonate with anyone at all.
MacKay entered the race saying he wanted to “do politics differently” and raise the bar for political discourse, which, let’s be honest, has been said by probably 80% of leadership contestants in the past decade. Pundits assumed he was referring to the divisive messaging that favoured being anti-Trudeau over anything else that had failed the Conservative Party in the last election. But it didn’t last long, as MacKay soon released a video juxtaposing himself as a strong man’s man against a feminized Trudeau who spends money on things like yoga. The video backfired, both for the gendered lens of his attacks, and because MacKay has his own history of spending scandals. MacKay was questioned by the media at his next campaign stop.
Here, things went from bad to worse for MacKay. First he said that he didn’t agree with the post, and it was released by his campaign without his vetting, making him look like he is not in control of his team. Then, his communications team abruptly shut down the interview, stopping any further questions. Hiding from the media is certainly not a good look for a prospective party leader.
Can MacKay Take On Justin Trudeau?
MacKay has a difficult tightrope to walk between now and the next election. On one side, he has a party he’s hoping to lead that’s been criticized for drifting further to the right, and further away from substantive policy that resonates with the average Canadian. It’s a party that has fallen short on climate policy, and on promoting an accepting environment for diverse people. On the other hand, he is seen by many as a more progressive option (he was leader of the Progressive Conservatives, after all) that might appeal to centrist, or even center left voters. The struggle for MacKay will be convincing the far-right sector of his party to support him, while convincing Canadians he’s a progressive, responsible option to vote for.
At the same time, Justin Trudeau isn’t what you would consider a stellar candidate right now. While he did win the last election, he only managed to win a precarious minority government. He’s also been successfully painted as ridden with scandals, and after his blackface incident, lost the progressive luster that helped him get elected in the first place.
One thing that’s firmly in Trudeau’s corner is MacKay’s french skills — or lack thereof. Bilingualism is an important quality to posses as a major party leader who hopes to lead the whole country, especially for Quebec, where the Conservatives need to win. MacKay really has no excuse for his poor french skills at this point, as he was in federal politics as a party leader, as a cabinet minister, for a very long time. But he still struggles to pronounce even basic phrases in one of Canada’s official languages.
Peter MacKay has a real shot of being the next Prime Minister of Canada. He’s the clear front runner for the leadership of his party and the incumbent Prime Minister is precariously holding on to the position. It’s his race to lose.
But with any minority government situation, he needs to be ready to enter an election at any time — and right now, his campaign looks disorganized and he can’t seem to find his footing. He needs to solidify his brand and maybe think about hiring a new communications team, and he needs to do it fast.
And if everything goes right for him, he could very well be Canada’s next Prime Minister.