The ONW Salon: Peter MacKay has decided he is not running for the leadership of the Conservative party. MacKay was considered one of the most viable of potential candidates and, perhaps, the standard bearer for the more moderate side of the party. What does it mean for the Conservative race and the party itself that he has decided to sit this one out? John Capobianco, Richard Mahoney and Tom Parkin debate.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, the news of Peter MacKay not running for the Conservative Party leadership is a big deal and, as such, newsworthy.
Peter has had a significant political career as an MP, Minister, PC Party Leader and the co-founder of the Conservative Party of Canada along with Stephen Harper in the early 2000’s. This career ended at his own doing last year before the election when he decided he was not going to seek re-election in his home province of Nova Scotia.
The reason he gave then - and the same reason he gave for not running for the leadership - was family. Now we always hear politicians giving up their political careers for family and we sometime doubt that is the real reason, but I don’t think anyone who knows Peter will actually doubt that this was his real reason.
So let's talk about what this means to the Conservative race - and in the interests of full disclosure, I am advising (as a volunteer) the Tony Clement campaign.
MacKay not in the race will change the dynamics of the campaign by having more candidates run than would have been the case, because many will see this as an opportunity since Peter would have no doubt been the front runner.
However, that is good for the party, not bad. The more people running, the better the discourse and the more opportunity to ignite the party with membership and policy ideas.
Peter Mackay's given reason for not running is his desire to be with family. I have no doubt this is at least partly true. And it must have seemed ever truer when he looked at the uphill battle he was facing.
Without a doubt this Conservative leadership race will be a bruising affair and will be hard on anyone. Then add that even if he were to win, he'd have to find a seat. There'd be hounding from the government benches, pundits and media for him to contest in Atlantic Canada, in Nova Scotia, which is wall-to-wall Liberals with no guarantee. And then if he didn't win the seat, it'd be a total disaster.
This race seems to be splitting between the libertarians and the populists (to be polite). While there are quite a few bit players on the stage, we see Max Bernier in the libertarian spot, Kellie Leitch and Tony Clement playing the populist card. Perhaps this creates more room for someone like Kevin O'Leary, John?
A final preliminary thought: while Clement and Leitch are getting great coverage from the populist stances, I think this is death for the Conservatives for two reasons. First, the anti-immigrant vote isn't big enough - last election it came to define the Conservative campaign and they lost on it. Second, it overlooks what is most important - the economy. In this economy, working class and young Canadians are being left behind. They're frustrated. They need economic solutions, not populist distractions.
I agree with Tom that Leitch's stances in particular may well appeal to some in the Conservative base, but is poisonous to the future of the Conservatives as a party that wants to be considered as a potential government of all Canadians. Many will see it as I do - as irresponsible and dangerous - suggesting, as Donald Trump does, that somehow new immigrants are some kind of a threat, rather than a much-needed boost to our country and our economy.
Peter MacKay's decision is a hard blow to the Conservatives. He is known across the country, with a stature at least a little bit independent from Stephen Harper, given his Progressive Conservative roots. That said, those roots did not show themselves above ground very often as he was a key henchman in the Harper operation.
It does look like a field of lesser known and also-rans, and the Conservatives want/need the race to be much more than that.
Kevin O'Leary remains a mystery to many in our party as do his true intentions in wanting to run for the CPC leadership. I like Kevin, I think he has a lot to offer in the economic space, especially as he has been brutally and savagely going after both Premiers Notley and Wynne for their economic policies. His open letters have been getting Kevin a lot of conservative-minded fans.
What most aren’t sure of is whether he is doing this to promote himself or does he truly want to do what is necessary to become leader and PM? That is a different and more challenging ballgame. Peter well knows this, which it is why he mentioned it as a factor in his decision not to run.
So to answer Tom’s question, Peter not joining the race will create room, we're just unsure if the room is for Mr. O’Leary or not. He has been suggesting November as a possible decision deadline, so we'll see. He has, though, been meeting with various candidates and has recently ruled out Kellie Leitch, so who knows if he is making his list.
Speaking of Kellie Leitch, both Tom and Richard have taken this opportunity to criticize her recent policy announcement of screening immigrants for what Leitch calls "Canadian values”. Fair game, but this is a leadership race and candidates are allowed to suggested policy ideas – that is democracy and a healthy part of democracy.
Others have chimed in to disagree – in fact, most if not all the contenders disagree - which again, is healthy. What is not healthy is that the NDP are still talking about Mr. Mulcair, who was booted out of his party months ago and they still don’t have anyone wanting to lead their party. That is unhealthy. At least we are having a policy debate and discussions within our party and as both Richard and Tom are well aware, leadership races, like American primaries, are to engage the party and attract new members so it can grow and become stronger.
Again, just to emphasize, Canadians' primary concern is the economy. A Conservative race that is off pressing hot buttons starts to suggest that either the candidates don't have an economic plan or it's not much different than the Liberals'.
As John has pulled in the NDP's troubles, let me take a second on that.
The NDP caucus has a chairperson, Charlie Angus, who is respected. It has a party president, Marit Stiles - also very respected. If MPs have gripes about the leader and don't want to address them directly, those are the two people they can call. Unattributed conversations with journalists to undermine a leader are never, ever, ever, helpful.
If a leader hears there are gripes, familiarize yourself with the phone. 99 per cent of leadership is team unity. 99 per cent of that is communications.
The NDP leadership is still more than a year away (the Conservative leadership is next spring), so the NDP is on a different timeline. But from what I am seeing and hearing, I think there are at least five candidates likely to campaign for the leadership job: Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Jagmeet Singh, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian.
This fall is a time for these folks to step up and Tom Mulcair to fade back a bit. A time for these folks to build some profile and make some issues. And if there is one thing I will be suggesting to NDP leadership candidates, it's that the problem of working class and young people being left behind in this economy is big.
The Conservatives will be anti-immigrant. The Liberals will be all middle-class. The NDP has the chance to get its base back in order and speak for those who have little voice right now.
Tom isn't usually the kind of guy to give advice to Conservatives. And they may be unlikely to take advice from Tom. But his advice to focus on the economy is smart, rather than inventing issues like a barbaric cultural practice hotline, the new and improved version, as Ms. Leitch is doing,
There are two other impacts of MacKay's decision not to run. First, as John suggests, I expect this will result in some lesser-known candidates coming forward to kick the tires and see whether they can get a campaign together. The departure of a presumed front-runner leaves much more room for that.
Secondly, I think it makes Lisa Raitt the new front-runner. She has some national profile, she is smart and has some potential political appeal. While she will be a little tarred with the brush of Harper, she may be able to overcome that and take up the mantle of a kinder, gentler, so-called Progressive Conservative. It seems to me many will be looking for that as a response to the downsides of the Harper years. And Lisa Raitt has an opportunity to fill that space.
That said, let's repeat Tom's advice. The road to national success for a Conservative leadership candidate is by appealing to the broad interests of Canadians in all walks of life. Running a slightly tepid version of Trump might seem an appealing detour, but, in the long run, it is not in the country's interest, and will ultimately disqualify the politician who traffics in that nonsense from being a true national leader.
Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance. He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.