Second is the predictable nature of his rise given current narratives surrounding his party. Critics of the Conservatives have basically one thing to say: that the party is too right-wing. They say it in every context and about every candidate in every election. It seemed unavoidable that the party would be eventually worn down and install a leader like MacKay, pulled from the party’s left flank.
But at a time when Canadian conservatism is in the midst of severe existential crisis, torn between competing interests of conservative Christians, secular libertarians and a nervous party establishment, it’s not clear a leftward turn in leadership and doubling down on one of the party’s most divisive figures makes much strategic sense.
MacKay was first elected to Parliament in 1997 as a member of the old Progressive Conservative Party. After the party was decimated in Canada’s 1993 federal election, its orthodox right flocked to the Reform (later Alliance) Party, leaving the PCs a small, curious coalition of people content to defend a deeply diluted flavor of “conservatism.” Many of MacKay’s PC colleagues would later defect to the Liberal Party, including Bill Casey and Scott Brison. The first PC leader MacKay served, Jean Charest, was made head of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1998, while his second, Joe Clark, has spent his recent years repeatedly endorsing Liberal candidates.
In 2003, MacKay ran to lead the PCs and won by forming an electoral alliance with David Orchard, the contest’s farthest-left candidate. As a condition of his support, Orchard demanded MacKay disavow any interest in merging with the Alliance Party and “review” Canada’s free-trade agreement with the United States — one of the proudest achievements of the last PC government, but a bugaboo of the furiously anti-American Orchard. Orchard would proceed to run for the Liberals in 2008.
The terrible press MacKay received for allying with Orchard — widely scorned as a “deal with the devil,” even among moderate conservatives — and what it says about his instincts when left to his own devices has been largely forgotten. MacKay ultimately betrayed Orchard after Alliance leader Harper proposed a party merger and MacKay happily agreed.
Harper became head of the new party in 2004, despite MacKay’s efforts to ensure someone else got the job. He considered running himself, but, according to reporting at the time, MacKay’s confidants worried “he would emerge from a contest bloodied, and with his already fragile credibility in tatters.” After Harper was elected prime minister, MacKay served loyally in his cabinet.
MacKay now hopes his moderate pedigree will prove sufficient fuel for the most audacious phase of his political career yet. His campaign launch on Jan. 25 was aggressively un-ideological. Audiences were instead treated to the sort of bland patriotic filler beloved by unimaginative Canadian speechwriters, such as “we are warriors on the ice and in the sand.”
On social media, MacKay aides have repackaged snippets of his sophistry as if they were pearls of profound wisdom, illustrating banalities like “when Canadians band together and stand united there is nothing we can’t accomplish” with much-mocked graphics. Last Tuesday, MacKay tweeted a news release with a four-word caption, “Pride parades are important,” a reductio ad absurdum regurgitation of the conventional wisdom that Conservatives need to care more about LGBT issues.
Whether any of this is resonant with the people MacKay actually needs to persuade — Conservative Party members — seems distressingly irrelevant given how no one in his party’s conservative wing seems interested in contesting his ascent. Former cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre, who is very popular with the Conservative base, once looked to be the pin in MacKay’s balloon. But on Jan. 23, he shockingly abandoned a leadership campaign that was, by all accounts, mere hours away from launching.
By process of elimination, this assigns Erin O’Toole, the only other substantial entrant in the Conservatives’ sparse leadership contest, the task of challenging MacKay from the right. Last Monday, O’Toole launched his rival campaign with a vastly more substantial and principled pitch, using phrases like “cancel culture” and “radical left” that are impossible to imagine emanating from a pacifying figure like MacKay.
Yet in the last leadership race, it was O’Toole who marketed himself as the gentle moderate, meaning his campaign will have to overcome its own odor of cynicism to triumph. MacKay remains eminently beatable, but his opponent must be able to channel an authenticity of conviction that seems to be in distressingly short supply in Conservative circles these days.