Peter MacKay tours Quebec in quest for Tory leadership

Photo: Chisholm Pothier

Peter MacKay chats with a group of young people in Rouyn-Noranda.

The man who stands a fighting chance of becoming prime minister of Canada in the foreseeable future is on the phone, punctual, and eager to chat.

Peter MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, is on the campaign trail seeking to lead the Conservative Party of Canada, the unified party of the right he helped create in 2003, paving the way for Stephen Harper to become prime minister in 2006.

MacKay was calling from Toronto, where he has lived for the past five years, working as a lawyer and raising his family of three children. MacKay, 54, had just wrapped up a seven-day, 17-stop tour of Quebec, from Rouyn-Noranda to Donnaconna.

MacKay is considered the front-runner in the race to replace Andrew Scheer. His main rival is Toronto-area MP and former veterans’ affairs minister Erin O’Toole, who came third in the race in 2017, behind Maxime Bernier and Scheer. Also running are Leslyn Lewis and Tory MP Derek Sloan.

Voting by mail is already underway with results to be announced Aug. 21.

Here is the edited QCT interview with Peter MacKay.

Why are you doing this?

The country, my children. Public service is important to me and always has been, and I felt the call to try to make a difference in many parts of the policy that I think is putting the country on the wrong track. For those reasons I’ve decided to re-enter the political realm where I spent 18 years. I felt this was the thing I had to do.

What kind of policy differences do you want to make?

The focus is on jobs and employment and getting people back to work in a post-COVID-19 world. This entire pandemic happened after I had made the decision but I was already concerned by the lack of fiscal responsibility that this government has demonstrated. We were getting close to $100 billion in deficit spending even before the pandemic, which is much different from the way we operated during my time in government. We entered the recession of 2008 with a balanced budget. That gives the country a great deal more flexibility, the ability to recover quicker, as opposed to where we find ourselves today with a $343-billion deficit ... and a trillion-dollar debt.

[I’m] also concerned with some of the criminal justice initiatives this government took, putting less emphasis on victims and putting resources in places that don’t help make people safe but are done for purely partisan reasons. Our justice system is sacrosanct in this country. It needs to protect citizens first.

I would point out as well [...] as a former justice minister but also as former defence minister, I think our security is lacking. The government has not placed a priority on making investments that keep our country’s sovereignty and safety on par with other G7 countries. We have the lowest number of deployed Canadian forces in decades, we have still not been able to secure fighter jets to replace the aging CF-18s and, quite frankly, countries we used to consider close allies are looking at us with a bit of a jaundiced eye. They’re not sure this is the country they want to partner with on security matters.

How has the Conservative Party changed since you led it?

2003 seems like a very long time ago, but what I would emphasize is the importance of unity within the conservative movement, and I don’t say that from a purely partisan vantage point. Having a federal party that is a strong alternative of government-in-waiting is critically important for a vibrant democracy. When the movement was split […] we had the Reform Party, the Progressive Conservative Party remnants, and the Bloc, and this all happened quite precipitously in the aftermath of the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown.

If you don’t have strong national parties, I believe we start to fray at the edges. We’re seeing that with the Wexit movement in western Canada; we’ve certainly seen the ebbs and flows of [the desire for] sovereignty within Quebec.

I would certainly suggest that our strength as a party right now is more based in western Canada, but I hope to be able to rebuild that national support base. I come from Atlantic Canada […]. I’ve been working and living in Toronto, in an urban centre where the Conservative Party has struggled at times to get a foothold and gain support. To do that, we need to present moderate, inclusive and thoughtful policies on issues such as the environment.

We spoke about criminal justice and security, but I think it also means infrastructure, transportation, ensuring no one has the misconception that we are anything but pro-immigration, that we are a party that defends rights, that doesn’t roll back rights.

How would you describe your support in Quebec among party members and MPs?

I have the majority of them. We have 10 [Conservative MPs in Quebec] and I have six; two are neutral and one is supporting another candidate. Similarly I have people like Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Lawrence Cannon, folks I worked with in cabinet.

In the last few days I took a bit of a tour through Quebec; we were finally able to actually go out and meet people, while respecting social distancing and wearing masks. What was most heartening, beyond the obvious of being able to move around as in a traditional campaign, was the enthusiasm for former candidates and potentially future candidates and the membership themselves, who are feeling interested and engaged. I heard on numerous occasions a lot of our support in Quebec is available to us if we do not get “wrapped around the axle,” if I can put it that way, on social issues. We need to be clear where we stand on these issues.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.