MacKay fumbles early advantage


Advertise with us

Before any party leadership race, there is the pre-race that involves potential candidates working behind the scenes to explore the feasibility of a leadership run. If a heavyweight joins the race, he or she may scare off potential challengers.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Pay $19.00 every four weeks. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled anytime.


Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/02/2020 (1096 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Before any party leadership race, there is the pre-race that involves potential candidates working behind the scenes to explore the feasibility of a leadership run. If a heavyweight joins the race, he or she may scare off potential challengers.

This has likely happened in the budding Conservative Party of Canada leadership race, in which former minister Peter MacKay has generally been viewed as a frontrunner. His early decision to run likely convinced some tire-kicking candidates they would be better off waiting to become ministers in a MacKay government rather than taking on the inevitable winner.

MacKay and former leader Stephen Harper formed the Conservative party in 2003 by merging Harper’s right-wing Canadian Alliance with MacKay’s ideologically squishy Progressive Conservative Party. MacKay’s long-standing reputation as a centrist “Red Tory” means he may be vulnerable to a challenge from someone in the party’s right wing. Former minister Pierre Poilievre appeared to be organizing to assume just such a role before packing in his nascent leadership bid.

Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press Files Peter MacKay speaks to a crowd of supporters in Stellarton, N.S., on Jan. 25 during an event to officially launch his campaign for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

The result is that MacKay is the acknowledged frontrunner in a race without much competition. Former minister Erin O’Toole is in the running, but his own reputation as a Red Tory means he is not in a good position to challenge MacKay. O’Toole appears to realize this and has tacked to the right, but (unlike Poilievre, who is a true believer) he is simply not very convincing in this role.

Does MacKay deserve an aura of inevitability? Not if you’re judging on the basis of his current leadership campaign, in which MacKay has leapt from cowpie to cowpie.

The campaign from the outset was, um, unique. The candidate tweeted out noodle-scratching slogans such as “I am proud of Canadians because Canadians make me proud” and “Canada is strong because Canadians make it strong.” As it turns out, people were confused because these messages were confusing.

Often, MacKay’s online sloganeering was delivered via flashing, fluorescent graphics that had some derisively suggesting they might prompt epileptic seizures.

Then came the strange obsession with establishing MacKay’s manly credentials and emasculating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In response to the revelation that MacKay had once turned down Trudeau’s invitation to spar in a boxing match, MacKay cringingly said he would have preferred a UFC-style bare-knuckles brawl.

In another interview, he contrasted his own love of hockey with Trudeau’s seeming fondness for yoga. His Twitter account drove that message home, criticizing Trudeau for spending Liberal Party money on yoga lessons and massages.

That message probably delighted Tory partisans initially, but subsequently served to remind them of MacKay’s own generosity when it came to spending public money on his own convenience. For example: while defence minister, MacKay was picked up from a holiday at a Newfoundland fishing cabin by a military helicopter and flown to Gander Airport at a cost of roughly $16,000. A government Challenger jet then ferried the high-flying minister to London, Ont., at a cost of about $40,000 so he could make a military-procurement announcement.

This unearthing of skeletons likely now has Tories thinking about how MacKay’s own past record will blunt any attacks they attempt to level against some of Trudeau’s more questionable spending. Further, MacKay’s refrain that he was returning to public life to introduce more civility into politics was hard to reconcile with his sharp-elbowed attacks on the prime minister.

In recent days, MacKay came to the conclusion that his campaign was not exactly firing on all cylinders and pledged to do things differently. But when a journalist asked MacKay a tough question, his staffers abruptly intervened to announce the interview was over. MacKay, surprised, defended the journalist (“She’s just doing her job”) but then sheepishly departed after his staffers insisted he do so.

Needless to say, being bossed around by the staff is not good optics for a candidate who has been marketed as a glove-dropping tough guy.

What are the consequences of MacKay’s inept campaign? Maybe none. But it’s likely that people in the party, especially on the right, are asking whether MacKay’s success is really inevitable or if the self-proclaimed brawler from New Glasgow will turn out to have a glass jaw.

The likely entry of John Williamson, a well-regarded New Brunswick MP, into the race has likely raised eyebrows in the MacKay camp. Williamson’s right-wing credentials are impeccable: before entering public life, he was a founding member of the National Post editorial board, the national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and Harper’s director of communications.

As an MP, he was often willing to defy the party whip on matters of principle. In at least one case, Harper’s government backed down when facing opposition from Tory MPs, including Williamson.

Williamson would be a strong candidate for the leadership, and his manoeuvring suggests that the shine may well and truly have come MacKay’s campaign. Maybe we’ll see a real race, after all.

Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us