Photo: flickr/Benjamin J. DeLong

The last leader of Canada’s federal Progressive Conservative (PC) Party announced his resignation from politics on Friday.

Peter McKay is currently Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Minister of Justice.

He is the son of Brian Mulroney cabinet minister Elmer MacKay and a former crown prosecutor in Nova Scotia; and was first elected to parliament, as a Progressive Conservative, in 1997.

MacKay took over leadership of the now defunct federal PC party in 2003.

His main opponents, then, were: Nova Scotia PC MP, Scott Brison, now a Liberal; a Calgary lawyer by the name of Jim Prentice, now retired from politics; and one David Orchard, an organic farmer from Saskatchewan.

Orchard was the wild card.

He considered himself to be a red Tory, in the tradition of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, combining a strong affinity for Canada’s traditional British connection (especially the monarchy) with an aversion to “continentalism,” and support for generous social programs and environmentalism.

When he first ran for the PC leadership in 1998, Orchard was viewed as a left-wing outlier, largely because of his opposition to free trade with U.S.

Orchard finished far behind the winner, former Prime Minister and senior cabinet minister in Mulroney’s government, Joe Clark.

The Saskatchewan farmer stuck with the party, however, and did much better in the 2003 leadership race, winning nearly a quarter of the votes, and coming second on the first ballot to MacKay.

In the end, several ballots later, the race came down to MacKay versus Prentice, with Orchard in third place.

At that point, MacKay made a deal to get Orchard’s support, which he put in writing.

No more ‘Progressive’

The key commitment of that deal was that there would be no merger of any sort with the Stephen Harper-led Canadian Alliance (CA).

The CA was the successor party to the Reform Party, which had stormed Ottawa in 1993, completely displacing the Progressive Conservatives in western Canada.

Mere months later, however, MacKay broke his solemn, written promise to Orchard.

At the urging of powerful forces in corporate Canada, Mackay entered into negotiations with the Canadian Alliance.

By the end of 2003, the merger of the two parties was complete.

The new party called itself simply the Conservative Party.

It dropped the  word “Progressive” that had been part of the party’s brand since 1942, when the then-languishing Conservatives sought to revive their fortunes by recruiting Manitoba’s popular United Farmers’ (aka Progressive) Premier, John Bracken, to be their leader.

Early in 2004, Harper easily won the leadership of the new party, beating car parts magnate and political newcomer, Belinda Stronach, and former Ontario PC cabinet minister, Tony Clement.

MacKay had declined to run for the new party’s leadership. After his victory, Harper named the man who had co-authored the merger plan with him the new party’s deputy leader.

Piloted prostitution law; articulately defended C-51

When the Conservatives took power in 2006, however, Harper did not name a deputy prime minister. Mackay got the next best thing, the coveted job of Foreign Minister.

Subsequently, Mackay held the posts of Defence Minister, where he had some awkward moments, and his current job, Justice Minister.

In that latter role, Mackay piloted the government’s new prostitution legislation, a response to the Supreme Court having thrown out the previous law.

Many legal experts say the Conservatives’ new law is equally unconstitutional.

Mackay’s response on that point has been laconic. He has argued that the government “believes” its new law would stand up in court.

Mackay has also been a staunch and vocal defender of the Harper government’s anti-terror, omnibus legislation, Bill C-51.

It is worth noting, however, that MacKay’s rhetorical style in defending C-51 has been less over-the-top and emotional, and more factual, than that of most of his colleagues.

Deep down, one cannot help but feel that MacKay has not entirely fit in with the more ideologically hard right Harper inner circle. 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...