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There's no doubt Conservative leadership hopeful Peter MacKay is trying to position himself as the socially-progressive Conservative option, but some experts wonder how his plan to court the broader Canadian electorate will play with the party's core.
MacKay, who officially launched his campaign for leader this weekend and announced Monday he had been formally accepted as a candidate by the party, said earlier this week that he had applied to march in the 2020 Toronto pride parade.
“We live in a world where sexual orientation and gender identity are still used by tyrants and bigots to belittle and oppress. In Canada, we are lucky to have a society that has grown more tolerant, more accepting and more understanding, but there is still more work to be done,” MacKay said in a statement posted on social media.
This comes after MacKay slammed possible leadership contender Richard Décarie for calling sexuality a choice, and months after he said former leader Andrew Scheer's refusal to clarify his stance on social issues like gay marriage and abortion hung around his neck like a “stinking albatross” during the election.
“Peter MacKay is unabashedly presenting himself as part of the mainstream of Canadian political life and as someone who would (be) an eminently electable alternative to Justin Trudeau so he had to make some quick and symbolic gestures early in the leadership race and he's doing that,” said Cape Breton University professor Tom Urbaniak.
He is trying to signal that he is not a social Conservative, and whether that's going to work is hard to tell.
MacKay has consistently topped polls as a favoured option among Canadians to lead the party but performs less well in polls of party members, the group who will actually choose the leader in June.
“He is trying to signal that he is not a social Conservative, and whether that's going to work is hard to tell. It's important to recognize that that might be appealing to Canadian voters as a whole but leadership is decided by conservatives and over the last 10 years the Conservative party has catered more to the conservative base which is right of centre,” Dalhousie political sociologist Howard Ramos told SaltWire.
Beyond how he is positioning himself now, MacKay will, especially for party veterans, always be associated with the former Progressive Conservative Party that he led briefly in 2003 before it merged with the Canadian Alliance to make the Conservative Party of Canada.
“Peter MacKay was leader of the Progressive Conservative party .... He had secured that position by making a deal with leadership contender David Orchard saying that he would not merge the PC Party with the Canadian Alliance and he turned around very quickly and did that, so that left a sour taste among many progressives in the party,” Urbaniak said,
“It's not clear how many of them are part of today's Conservative party, but there will be a few questions of credibility as people start to dig up incidents in MacKay's political past.”
There will be a few questions of credibility as people start to dig up incidents in MacKay's political past.
It's also worth noting that MacKay's messaging seems to be about unity and togetherness, in both a unified Conservative party context but also broadly as Canadians. His role in uniting Canada's right into one successful party in 2003 is sure to be a talking point.
But, Ramos points out, the political landscape in Canada is more fractured than ever, so it remains to be seen how that messaging will be received.
“The success of the Conservatives under the Harper era was that the Conservative party was able to build a broad umbrella that brought social conservatives and fiscal conservatives together. It seems that in the last election as well as the previous election we see that umbrella beginning to crack and we see regionalism coming into play again,” Ramos said.
“He's going to face challenges in Western Canada and he's going to face challenges with social conservatives who may not see him as representing their beliefs.”
Along with his stance on LGBTQ rights, MacKay's lack of mastery in Canada's second official language has also made headlines in the past week.
“There's no question this is a liability not only among francophone voters but among non-francophone voters who expect a national leader, who expect a prime minister in waiting to be completely bilingual,” Urbaniak said.
“It's not clear why ... despite all the time he has had to prepare and despite his many ambitions over the years, that Peter MacKay's French has not risen to the point of being competent and acceptable for a major national political party leader.”
Though still early days, MacKay has been branded in the media as a frontrunner. Ramos said that comes with its own set of challenges.
“It's his race to lose in terms of the candidates that have announced thus far and I think that is a very difficult position to be in in the sense that usually the frontrunners tend to be restrained in the kind of statements they're making,” he said. “Trying not to upset the balance that they have that builds their support and makes them somewhat less dynamic and puts more pressure on the people who are vying to unseat them to make bigger more dynamic statements. The pressure he's going to face is how do you navigate maintaining that lead and keeping that balance, and what the cost is of keeping balanced.”