MacKay Steps Ahead

The Conservative leadership race has been upstaged by events. But the debates showed that Peter MacKay has been correcting his course.


L. Ian MacDonald

June 19, 2020


Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice outcry produced by the murder of George Floyd, the Conservative leadership race has been all but knocked out of the news cycle.

Which may be the best thing that could have happened to the Tories, in the sense that they’ve run the worst leadership campaign of any major Canadian political party in memory. But they’ve been spared the kind of corrosive coverage that would normally doom a political brand to irrelevance.

Even before the COVID-19 virus came ashore in North America three months ago, the Conservative campaign was mostly making headlines for who wasn’t joining the race.

First Jean Charest, then Rona Ambrose, followed in short order by Pierre Poilievre and John Baird, all dropped out  even before entering, saying in one way or another that they had better things to do.

As for those who joined the race, the early days were memorable for their really lousy campaigns, none worse than Peter MacKay, at 54 the most experienced candidate in the field.

At his campaign launch in his native Nova Scotia in January, MacKay memorably mangled his opening declaration in French saying “J’ai sera candidate”, or “I have/will be a female candidate” rather than “Je serai candidat.” The French tabloids had a field day. And it was on teleprompter.

The MacKay campaign quickly became known for bad staff work, as when a young comms director interrupted a one-on-one TV interview, telling the network crew it was over while the camera was still running. Ouch.

Against this chronically and comically stumbling front runner, Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole, 47, quickly emerged as the only serious alternative in a thin field. By the time nominations closed there were only two other candidates—Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, and Derek Sloan, 35, a freshman MP from eastern Ontario. Though both are aligned on the right on issues such as abortion, she’s an interesting figure with a potentially promising future—highly educated with a doctorate in law, and with a strong personal narrative as the 50-ish daughter of Jamaican immigrants. For his part, Sloan has made it clear he’s not to be outflanked on the right on any social or economic issue, from abortion to energy.

All four candidates raised the $300,000 required to enter the race, and by the time party memberships closed last month, it was evident that neither front runner had enough caucus support or rank and file votes to win on the first ballot and that, in a close race, either one of the other two might emerge as kingmakers on a subsequent one.

The disorganized MacKay campaign had every reason to dread a no-growth scenario, where they were not close enough to a majority on the first ballot to clinch the leadership on the second.

And then, finally, MacKay got it—and not a moment too soon. He realized his biggest asset was his wife, who had, for reasons no one could explain, been virtually invisible.

But since Nazanin Afshin-Jam has become a player in the MacKay campaign, it has taken a decisive turn for the better. And why not? At 41, she’s brilliant and bold—the Iranian-born daughter of a refugee family who came to Canada when she was 10, a human rights activist and author, a former Miss World Canada and the mother of MacKay’s three young children. She has degrees in political science and international relations from University of British Columbia and a Master’s in diplomacy from Norwich University. What’s wrong with that picture? Nothing.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a decades-long  mentor of MacKay’s, frankly told him Conservatives wanted to see more of her. He spoke from some experience — his own leadership campaign in 1983 — which took off after Mila Mulroney joined his tour. “This is the Conservative Party,” Mulroney reminded MacKay. “Family is everything.”

Other friends of MacKay made the same point. Nazanin began showing up in his video spots, and then introducing him, “You married up,” a friend once told MacKay before he left Parliament to practise law in Toronto five years ago. “I know,” he replied. “Believe me, I know.”

Now the Conservative Party knows. Campaign advisers have also seen another side of her—the daughter of immigrants who has made her own way, and is tournament tough.

With the campaign schedule abbreviated and events held amid the social distancing of the pandemic, the Conservatives held only two leadership debates—both in Toronto, the first in French on Wednesday evening and the second one in English on Thursday night.

For the French debate, policy issues were essentially irrelevant. The only question that really mattered was whether any of them spoke adequate French, an obvious necessity for any would-be prime minister. The answers were as expected—Lewis and Sloan were hopeless beginners, and O’Toole’s French was acquired during his military service. MacKay served in cabinet in three portfolios—Foreign Affairs, Defence and Justice—where French is ever present, but never became fluently bilingual.

But while MacKay was the one under scrutiny in French, he turned out to be the beneficiary of low expectations following his disastrous debut. He has clearly been working on it, and his accent and delivery, if not his syntax, were much improved. In that sense, he won the French debate.

On, then, to Thursday’s debate, the main policy discussion of the campaign to date.

But from the pandemic to racism, from fiscal frameworks to economic recovery, from trade to Canada-U.S. relations, there was a subtext of the two front-runners looking to grow their support beyond a first ballot.

And beyond that, there was a clearly enunciated agenda by MacKay and O’Toole of making the Conservatives competitive again among the mainstream of voters who determine elections.

O’Toole kept referring to his being elected “three times in the Greater Toronto Area.” No coincidence in that. The Conservatives won a plurality of votes nationally in 2019, but lost the election because they were all-but wiped out in the 55 GTA seats, 25 in downtown area 416 and 30 ridings in suburban 905.

The Conservatives also see Justin Trudeau as an increasingly vulnerable incumbent, leaving aside his steady leadership during the pandemic.

As MacKay put it in his closing comments: “I will build a team that is ready to beat Justin Trudeau in every part of Canada.”

Which remains very much to be seen. But MacKay may have emerged from the last two evenings as the one more likely to be given that opportunity.


L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.