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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 to bail."

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 since.

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 his wounds.

"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.

Defining moment

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 another."

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 do both."

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