MacKay leadership campaign comes to unceremonious end

A campaign that was launched last winter with great promise met an ignominious end when Erin O’Toole was recently elected Conservative Party leader.

Following a contest that saw between 170,000 and 150,000 Canadians cast their ballots, in every federal riding over three rounds of voting, O’Toole was named leader after the third round of balloting saw the Ontario MP receive 90,635 votes (or 19,272 points), to former Central Nova MP Peter MacKay’s 63,356 votes (translating to 14,528 points).

As was predicted, MacKay did well in the Maritime provinces, winning Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI comfortably.

In the riding of Cape Breton-Canso, MacKay received 251 votes on the third ballot, to 68 for O’Toole. This support remained steady throughout the process with MacKay garnering 234 votes in the first round and 238 votes in round 2.

Even more predictable was MacKay’s showing in his home riding of Central Nova where he received 937 votes in the first round, 946 votes in the second round and 975 votes in round 3, to O’Toole’s 81 votes in that final round.

Newfoundland and Labrador proved a surprise for MacKay, with O’Toole receiving solid support there. In Quebec, MacKay badly underperformed, and this is where, arguably, his leadership aspirations were dashed.

It was expected that O’Toole, the MP for Durham, would do well in his home province, and then expand upon that base of support heading to the western provinces, which is the base of the Conservative Party.

MacKay’s only hope was to surprise in the west and in Ontario, do well in Quebec and sweep Atlantic Canada, and in retrospect, that seems like a tall order.

This tough task was made nearly impossible by MacKay’s rudderless campaign, with incoherent, contradictory messaging and policies.

The campaign was on shaky ground even before it started when MacKay criticized outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in the waning days of last fall’s federal campaign for, ironically, losing an election he should have won.

Things didn’t start well at MacKay’s campaign launch in New Glasgow in January when the media was not allowed to ask questions after the candidate spoke, a move that looking back, was a harbinger of communications missteps to come.

While on the trail, the campaign hit a ditch and just couldn’t get out. While smartly trying to steer the party toward the rest of Canada on LGBTQ2++ issues, the former Strait area MP then undermined that message of tolerance by awkwardly challenging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to a fight and mocking Trudeau for practicing yoga.

The numerous communication breakdowns illustrated a profound lack of judgement on MacKay’s part for either surrounding himself with staff not adept at their jobs, or for refusing to accept responsibility for these statements.

MacKay blamed a ridiculed social media post about Trudeau doing yoga, on a campaign staffer, and then responded to that backlash with an even more awkward appearance on social media, doing yoga while wearing a pro-pipelines t-shirt.

This was eerily similar to an appearance on ATV which was abruptly ended, and which was again blamed on a staffer.

This brings up MacKay’s environmental policy which involved him performing the untenable balancing act of appearing as a moderate while acting like a protector of the energy sector.

No better example of this was when he promised to eliminate the Carbon Tax but vowed that Canada will continue to try and meet emission targets established under the Paris Accord.

But the coup de grace for the MacKay campaign might very well be his off-key tone over the global COVID-19 pandemic. After coming out strongly in favour of continuing the leadership race, MacKay was rebuffed by the national party when it wisely decided to postpone the campaign until this summer.

After all the miscues, this provided MacKay an opportunity to right the ship, by stepping up and showing Canadians he could supply a level head during a public health crisis. Even at the time, MacKay knew full well, or should have known, that COVID-19 was serious, and any campaign would have to be interrupted for such an unparalleled challenge.

Unfortunately, MacKay decided to put his own narrow political interests first, and that decision might have been the final nail in his coffin.

MacKay’s 2020 Conservative leadership campaign is an interesting case study in how a candidate can go from a commanding lead in January to second place in August.