The Daily News (Halifax), Sunday, December 18, 2005
Orchard incident still clouds MacKay's image
Tory deputy leader seen as both betrayer and betrayed
By Richard Foot
BRIDGEWATER – Peter MacKay is driving through the
Nova Scotia countryside, from a friendly Tory riding on
the South Shore to the "turncoat" Liberal territory of
Kings-Hants – a once-solid Conservative base which
re-elected Scott Brison as MP after he defected to Paul
Martin's Liberals only months before the 2004 election.
The sunlit, wintry surroundings are lovely. Well-kept
Christmas tree farms and serene valleys lie beneath a
mantle of December frost. But the rural solitude seems
lost on MacKay during this day of campaigning. As his
car crosses the federal riding boundary into
Kings-Hants, the deputy leader of the Conservative party
bristles with thoughts of betrayal.
"You know, crossing the floor, leaving the party at a
critical juncture, I could never do that. I could never
live with myself," he says. "It's just not in my nature
MacKay – one of the few national figures on the
Conservative campaign roster, and Stephen Harper's most
obvious successor – has been buffeted by issues of
loyalty and betrayal his entire political career.
As the son of Mulroney-era cabinet minister Elmer
MacKay, he witnessed first-hand the breakup of
Mulroney's conservative coalition by western populists
and Quebec separatists in the late 1980s.
More recently, he watched with anger and
embarrassment as Brison left the Tory benches to join
the Liberals. The two Nova Scotian MPs haven't spoken
Brison's defection was followed this year by the
stinging decision of Belinda Stronach to abandon not
only her party, but also MacKay, her boyfriend, for a
cabinet post with the Liberals. Humiliated, MacKay
retreated to his father's farm in Pictou County to lick
"I think I'll go home and walk my dog," he said at
the time. "At least dogs are loyal."
Whatever disloyalties have been heaped upon him,
however, the most infamous betrayal was of MacKay's own
making - when he broke a written promise to David
Orchard, in return for his support at the Progressive
Conservative party leadership convention in 2003, not to
merge the PCs with the Canadian Alliance.
Today, MacKay resolutely defends the merger, saying
not only that he gained nothing personally out of the
deal – he lost his leader's job and was pilloried in the
media – but that the outcome was fully endorsed by the
party's caucus and its members.
Calling it the defining moment of his political
career, he says the merger was also a crucial step in
ending the vote-splitting on the political right that
guaranteed years of Liberal hegemony.
"Some might see it as negative. I think the merger
improved democracy in Canada," he says. "We were living
in a dysfunctional democracy, and the Conservative party
was just eating itself."
Yet the Orchard episode still clouds MacKay's
reputation with voters. He knows he suffers a
credibility problem, and walks with an Achilles heel on
the national stage.
"Any time I'm getting under the skin of the Grits,"
he says, "they start shouting 'Orchard.'"
Even Nova Scotians who traditionally vote Tory – and
would otherwise love to see a native son rise to high
office in Ottawa – remain wary.
'Sticks in my mind'
"I think Canada needs someone young like him as prime
minister," says Esther Ramey, an elderly voter in
Bridgewater, after meeting MacKay at a campaign stop.
"But one thing that bothers me about him – that sticks
in my mind – is that he says one thing, and does
Says Ralph DeLong, a Nova Scotia farmer and longtime
Progressive Conservative: "We're still very nervous of
this new federal party, because Harper and his
followers are too right-wing for us. I like MacKay, but
I don't like what he did with that merger."
Such nagging doubts are almost certain to haunt
MacKay if he seeks the leadership of his party, or the
country, in the years to come.
MacKay says for most of his life he had only "a
passing interest" in electoral politics. He was never a
member of the PC Youth, or an official delegate to Tory
conventions until he became an MP. He had been wary of
the pressures and demands he had seen politics impose on
his father's life, and the direct role such pressures
played in the breakup of his parents' marriage.
Now, after turning 40 this year and enduring the
heavy public scrutiny of his own breakup with Stronach,
MacKay says he's acutely aware of his status as an
aging, albeit eligible, bachelor, and the difficulties
of raising a young family inside the high-stakes hot
zone of national politics.
"I don't have a family, and that weighs heavily on my
mind," he says, "because I want a family; it's something
that I don't want to miss. Obviously, because of other
personal experiences I've had recently, it's caused me
to reassess my own priorities."
Is MacKay saying he would pass up a shot at the prime
minister's job for the sake of having children?
"Sure I am. Absolutely ... If somebody said it has to
be one or the other, I'd take the family," he says.
And then the disclaimer: "That's not to say you can't