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Federal Politics

Peter MacKay? ‘Good Luck Mister’ Indeed

So far, it’s déjà vu for the French bluffing, macho posturing, Harper-whipped throwback.

Michael Harris 10 Feb

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

He can’t speak French, he views the media as either a vanity mirror or the enemy, and a rubber boot has more ideas.

So why is Peter MacKay the favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada?

Chaos. The truth is the CPC is a hot mess at the moment. It is desperately looking for the stability of a well-known party figure to restore order. Pierre Poilievre, Rona Ambrose, and Jean Charest didn’t want the job. That is the best thing MacKay has going for him, no serious rivals, and trouble in the CPC family.

It all began because the party couldn’t beat a vulnerable Justin Trudeau in 2019, so they did the next best thing. They killed off their own leader, Andrew Scheer. It was a trashy, amateurish hit — payback for not delivering the government. Of course, that was not the stated reason. Scheer was basically accused of sponging private school tuition fees for his kids from the Conservative Party Fund (CPF).

Stephen Harper was particularly offended by Scheer’s alleged expense violations, so upset that the CPF, which Harper then belonged to, demanded a forensic audit and the leader’s ouster. When the executive director of the party, Dustin van Vugt, rushed to Scheer’s defence, vouching for the leader’s expenses, he was summarily fired by the CPF.

It was an institution-rattling event.

For starters, van Vugt was a loyal foot soldier who had carried a lot of water for the party. Unceremoniously dumping him was not popular.

Nor was it at all clear that the CPF even had the authority to do it, something that will be hotly debated at this November’s Conservative policy convention in Quebec City. Making matters worse, the fund did the firing without consulting the party’s elected National Council, further roiling the inner workings of the CPC.

It appears that Harper’s abrupt departure from the CPF was directly tied to the firing of van Vugt, and the infighting it touched off.

Anti-yoga warrior

The CPC’s cringe-worthy squabbling in the run-up to this June’s leadership vote has only partially obscured another embarrassment — MacKay’s grievously inept return to public life after a stint lawyering on Bay Street.

At his official campaign launch, MacKay couldn’t even manage token French, those dreadful, memorized, stumbling mutilations of the language politicians try to pass off as fluency when in Quebec. He was roasted in Quebec papers for his illiterate assertion "J’ai sera candidate." The Journal de Quebec responded with the headline "Good Luck Mister."

How could a guy live and work in Ottawa for more than a decade and still not be coherent in one of the country’s two official languages?

That is a question that becomes all the more damning, because so much language-training is available to MPs and cabinet ministers in the nation’s capital.

MacKay’s cereal-box French is embarrassing to the party, and a huge insult to seven million Quebeckers and French-speaking communities across the country. At his best, Harper won just 12 seats in Quebec and he could conjugate the verb "être." Should MacKay go on to win the leadership, he will be lucky to win any.

And what’s with MacKay’s macho-man shtick? Did he really say he’d like to have a cage match with the prime minister, or better yet, a fistfight on the ice — no headgear, no gloves?

And is extolling hockey over yoga, the PM’s workout of choice, the way to convince Canadians he is fit to run the country? Because, you know, the PM is some sort of a yoga namby-pamby?

Harper redux

MacKay has made much of wanting to do politics in a new way. You could have fooled me. He is against a carbon tax and offers nothing but vapid platitudes as an environmental policy. Like Stephen Harper.

MacKay wants to downsize government, cut taxes, and deregulate in order to get Ottawa out of the way of big business. Like Stephen Harper.

Even on justice issues, MacKay hasn’t exactly been a "progressive" dream. He recently said that when it comes to sentencing, life should mean life. Marijuana should not have been legalized. Tough on crime, like Stephen Harper.

Finally, what is the top priority of the man who wants to do politics differently? The economy, of course, making it more productive, profitable, and competitive. A big business guy. Like Stephen Harper.

In a nutshell, MacKay has yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems. That hardly passes the "Greta" test, and none of it will fly with young Canadians.

MacKay is no more electable outside the semi-friendly confines of the CPC than Harper was in 2015. The party has learned nothing from consecutive electoral defeats. It continues to blame "messaging" instead of piss poor, out of touch policy. And marching in a gay pride parade one day before Conservatives pick their leader at the convention, as MacKay has said he will, looks more like optics than a change of heart.

There are counterarguments to the view that MacKay has very little to offer to a national audience as the leader of a major political party. Some have said that nothing less than history itself is calling this son of New Glasgow back into public life.

MacKay is after all, the co-founder of the CPC, along with Harper. The Canadian Alliance side of the merger had their 10 years at the helm, and with the demise of Scheer, there is a feeling amongst a lot of Conservatives that the old Progressive Conservatives should now have their turn.

Others point to MacKay’s experience in the Harper governments of yesteryear. MacKay was deputy leader and held three senior cabinet portfolios — Justice, Defence, and Foreign Affairs.

And since his father was a cabinet minister in the governments of former PM Brian Mulroney (it was Elmer MacKay who gave up his Central Nova riding so that Mulroney could get a seat in parliament in 1983), politics is in MacKay’s DNA.

None of these justifications for MacKay’s frontrunner status holds water.

His signature move as a Progressive Conservative was to abandon the party’s traditions, the better to embrace the Reform vision of Harper. It was not a merger so much as a surrender.

To diehard Progressive Conservatives like David Orchard, it was also treachery. In presiding over the demise of the PC party, MacKay did exactly what he promised Orchard he would not do — lead the party into merger oblivion.

As for the value of MacKay’s resume as a Harper cabinet minister, it is highly dubious. It was MacKay who named Michael Sona as the culprit in the Guelph robocalls scandal — and he did it before Sona had been formally charged. That is not normally what justice ministers do.

As minister of defence, MacKay became famous for being photographed hopping in and out of the cockpit of a fake F-35 Stealth fighter jet. He was less forthcoming with real information about this troubled aircraft, including its mind-blowing cost and chronic problems.

It took the Parliamentary Budget Office and Kevin Page to reveal that the government had monstrously lowballed the most expensive acquisition to that point in Canadian military history. And the deception had been done deliberately, ostensibly to spare Canadians from "sticker shock" if the real price were admitted.

MacKay told Canadians that the war in Libya cost $50 million. The real cost was double that number. The minister blamed the media for sowing confusion.

MacKay was also part of the CPC caucus that voted unanimously not to exempt Veterans Affairs from government-wide cuts, a move that would reduce their benefits, including their medical care.

Harper wanted to balance the budget in time for the 2015 election, regardless of whether that meant ending postal delivery, closing scientific facilities or cutting services to veterans. MacKay went along.

The follies MacKay committed during his tenure as a Harper cabinet minister were sometimes funny, sometimes outrageous.

He once told Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that California and British Columbia shared a border.

He also used a government Challenger jet to attend a lobster dinner in his riding at a cost of $25,000.

Perhaps most famously, he used a search and rescue helicopter to leave a private fishing camp where he was vacationing in Newfoundland. He explained that his freeloading was really an already planned "demonstration," but DND emails obtained by the National Post contradicted the minister’s account.

Only in a party half-paralyzed by an identity crisis could such a person be the frontrunner. If MacKay is the saviour, then the CPC had better have a Plan B.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Federal Politics

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