Defence Minister Peter MacKay could have left himself more options when it came to handling the Afghan detainee issue. Confronted with Richard Colvin’s explosive Nov. 18 testimony to a House committee—in which the diplomat charged that the government had ignored repeated warnings in 2006 and 2007 that prisoners turned over by Canadian troops to Afghan authorities were tortured—MacKay might have played for time and looked into Colvin’s claims. Instead, the next day, he declared in question period that “there has not been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred Taliban prisoner by Canadian Forces,” and slammed Colvin for trading in “nothing short of hearsay, second- or third-hand information, or that which came directly from the Taliban.”
Tories rallied behind MacKay. His friends and backers said his uncompromising reaction sprang from staunch loyalty to Canadian troops in Afghanistan. (His 2009 Christmas card shows him surrounded by soldiers in camouflage.) But his unambiguous rebuke of a serving Foreign Affairs official proved hard to sustain. MacKay’s assertion that no transferred detainee was known to have been abused was demolished on Dec. 9, when Chief of the Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk admitted that Canadian soldiers grabbed back a prisoner they had turned over to Afghan police in 2006 after he was badly beaten. Then Colvin delivered a letter to the House committee on Afghanistan on Dec. 16, detailing how he’d gathered and reported information on Afghan torture—rendering MacKay’s portrayal of him as a Taliban dupe implausible.
For most cabinet ministers, these setbacks on the biggest controversy of the parliamentary session would have inflicted severe career damage. But MacKay is no ordinary minister, so how seriously he’s been hurt, if at all, remains a matter of debate. He draws on a deep reservoir of personal, family, and regional loyalties inside his party. Even Conservatives without those bonds to him tend to view MacKay, 44, as one of the few plausible Harper successors. And beyond the party ranks, his name and face are recognized as much for his high-profile bachelorhood—including his romance with Belinda Stronach—as for his high-stakes political gambles.
The starting point for any survey of MacKay’s political persona is his family name. His father, Elmer MacKay, is a close ally of former prime minister Brian Mulroney and served as a Nova Scotian kingpin in Mulroney’s cabinet, just as his son does now in Harper’s. But friends say viewing Peter as a chip off the Elmer block is a mistake. His parents split up when he was eight, and he was raised mainly by his mother, Macha Delap, a university student counsellor, in the Annapolis Valley. “She’s an NDPer and Peter gets his political astuteness from her,” said a long-time acquaintance and political supporter.
The same friend said a future in politics was far from a sure thing when MacKay graduated from Dalhousie University’s law school in Halifax and set up practice as a lawyer in New Glasgow, N.S., in 1991. Two years later he became a Crown prosecutor. But after the Conservatives’ decimation in the 1993 election, then-federal Tory leader Jean Charest recruited MacKay, hoping his surname would carry weight with Nova Scotia voters. It did. MacKay was first elected an MP in 1997, and has won every time since.
In 2003, MacKay succeeded Charest as Tory leader, vowing, as a condition of gaining maverick David Orchard’s crucial support at the leadership convention, not to merge with Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance. MacKay struck a unite-the-right deal with Harper a few months later anyway, and Harper appointed him foreign affairs minister in 2006, then defence minister in a 2007 cabinet shuffle. Foreign is traditionally the more prestigious portfolio, but given Afghanistan’s importance, defence is arguably the more prominent job today.
Despite holding such serious posts, MacKay’s image remains surprisingly jockish. Back in 2003, he hobbled into his final late-night merger talks with Harper on crutches, having wrenched his knee in a rugby game. Last spring, he broke his arm in a charity match—one that raised $25,000 for military families— on Parliament Hill. A fellow rugby enthusiast, Tory strategist Tim Powers, says the game informs MacKay’s political style. “He sees politics as a team sport,” Powers said, adding that MacKay conceives of a challenge like the detainee file in terms of “running the play” that’s been called—and he’s willing to take a hit for his side.
He has attracted even more attention for playing the field in another sense. MacKay’s relationship with Stronach came to a very public end when the auto-parts heiress, then a Tory MP, switched to the Liberals in 2005. The next year, as foreign minister, he and then U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice seemed so simpatico during a visit that even the New York Times put “baseless speculation” about a possible romance on its front page. But MacKay’s days generating that sort of gossip are evidently over: this past fall he became engaged to Jana Juginovic, CTV News Channel’s programming director.
Opinion differs about how MacKay’s rakish image might affect his political fortunes. Bob Plamondon, author of two books on the Conservatives, notes that similar coverage didn’t seem to hurt Pierre Trudeau. As well, he says, MacKay’s seriousness as a party figure isn’t in doubt, given his pivotal role in recreating the Conservative brand. He suspects MacKay is acutely aware of how his own story plays. Plamondon recorded lengthy interviews with him for his book Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics, and found the raw transcript of MacKay’s answers unusually coherent. “He could weave a story that was compelling and captured the moment,” he said. “I could take very large complete sections of his answers and put them in unedited.”
The narrative MacKay seemed to have in mind on the detainee story runs something like this: unreliable diplomat besmirches reputation of Canadian troops. Conservatives continue to cleave to that basic arc, though maintaining it in 2010 will be a challenge. Colvin’s charges are all about dubious decisions made in Ottawa, not in Kandahar’s combat zones. By late December, even Tories were talking more about neutralizing his impact than discrediting him outright. “The government can be accused of downplaying his testimony, but the opposition has overplayed it,” Powers said. Rehashing events from the period soon after Canadian troops arrived in large numbers in Kandahar in early 2006 increasingly looks like a bad bet for the government. “The debate should be back on the current situation in Afghanistan,” Powers said, “and not what allegedly happened three years ago.”
It will be up to MacKay to somehow shift that focus forward. Much depends on whether his repeated assertions that the government heard only general concerns about possible Afghan torture back in 2006—never specific, credible warnings—hold up under scrutiny. Just before Christmas, Canadian Press reported on a Sept. 26, 2006, meeting that MacKay, then foreign minister, along with two other cabinet ministers and the head of the Canadian International Development Agency, held with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC was alarmed about Afghan prison conditions at the time. A heavily censored government email mentioning the meeting is labelled. “Re: meeting with ICRC president re detention issues.” Exactly what was discussed isn’t clear. MacKay was not available to be interviewed for this story.
Conservative operatives, including MacKay’s staff, argue the media has made too much of Colvin’s account and the voting public doesn’t really care. A national Nanos poll late last month confirmed that popular opinion is divided and confused on the issue. If that pattern holds, the Conservatives are likely to emerge unscathed—and MacKay with his reputation among Tories enhanced. The danger for him will come if new details emerge that change the salient question from, “What happened to the detainees?” to, “Is the government hiding something?” Politics can celebrate a lover, an athlete, even a deal-maker. But “stonewaller through scandal” is an experience no politician with ambitions wants to add to his leadership resumé.