Peter vs. MacKay

Adam Cooke (middle) is pictured with current Conservative Party leadership candidate Peter MacKay (left) and former Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidate Hugh Segal.

Fourteen months after Peter MacKay won his first federal seat, I got my picture taken with him.

He was in Antigonish at the time, in a campaign stop for Hugh Segal, a former senior advisor to Brian Mulroney who was running for the federal Progressive Conservatives. I was quite astonished when Segal finished well back of the pack and the leadership went to Mulroney’s biggest Tory rival, Joe Clark – for the second time, no less.

I normally don’t get pictures taken with politicians, but at that time, I was about to leave the CIGO-AM newsroom, and I thought it might be nice to chronicle my last face-to-face interview with an elected official. (Insert rueful laughter here.)

When I told Peter this, he wished me well and said, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you, please let me know.” I smiled and thanked him, figuring I would not likely have a reason or an expectation to cash in that chip.

Anyway, you all know the rest of the story: Peter was re-elected five times, won the PC leadership after Clark stepped down in 2003, joined forces with Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper to create the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) less than six months later, served in several cabinet portfolios during a near-decade of Conservative rule, and is now running for the leadership of the party he helped to create.

The road to June’s CPC leadership convention could be a smooth one for Peter. It’s not the 17-candidate free-for-all that followed Harper’s 2015 election defeat and departure from the leader’s chair. As of this writing, there are only three declared candidates, with former Veteran Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole and second-term Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu tossing their hats in a nearly empty ring.

Several high-profile would-be CPC contenders have bowed out, including Harper cabinet ministers Rona Ambrose and Pierre Polievre, as well as former Quebec Premier Jean Charest. I was intrigued by Charest’s case, since he led the PCs into the 1997 federal election that saw Peter win the riding of Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough for the first time. I would have quite enjoyed seeing the mentor and the protégé face off for the opportunity to lead Canada’s right wing into the 2020s.

But instead, here we are, with Peter MacKay poised for a coronation and all the memories of my professional relationship with him flooding back.

Which makes me even more uneasy with a small but undeniable fact from Peter’s official campaign launch at Stellarton’s Museum of Industry in late January: Following his speech, he didn’t take any questions from reporters.

This might not actually matter to some of you. Fair enough. As a journalist, however, there’s an uncertain queasiness in my stomach that comes with a leadership hopeful denying media access.

The CPC still hasn’t shaken off the stench of Harper’s mistrust and alienation of the Ottawa press corps and the tight security that routinely accompanied party events of any sort. Peter has done neither himself nor his party any favours by continuing that sorry trend.

Besides, that’s not the Peter MacKay I got to know over the past 23 years. It isn’t the Peter MacKay who showed up for an announcement of federal highway funding in Antigonish on a hot August day and joked to reporters, “So, does anybody want to ask me any questions about the MV Miner?”

It isn’t the Peter MacKay from that 1998 picture, who was willing to answer any reporters’ questions, even if they were critical of PC party policy. And it isn’t the Peter MacKay who, at the end of my last interview with him for The Reporter following his mid-2015 announcement that he wouldn’t re-offer in that fall’s election, thanked me for being “fair and factual” during my coverage of his activities and those of his government.

You may notice that, through this column, I’ve been referring to him as “Peter” instead of “MacKay.” That’s partly due to our shared small-town Nova Scotia heritage and partly because he’s always styled himself as an affable, approachable guy.

Which is why I get the feeling that, in the next six months – and beyond, if he wins – the real battle won’t be between Peter and his leadership challengers, or even Peter and Justin Trudeau. It will be a clash of the two Peter MacKays, the likable, photogenic fellow who remembers your grandmother’s maiden name and the calculated game-player who knew exactly what he was doing when he branded outgoing leader Andrew Scheer as “having a breakaway on an open net and then missing the net” following last fall’s election.

I wish Peter well. I may even get another picture of the two of us together someday. I hope he and Canada both know exactly who he is by that point.