Peter MacKay has announced he is retiring from politics and will not be running in the next federal election. His accomplishments were many, beginning with restoring the Conservative Party to a central place in Canadian politics, then serving as minister in three of the four most important portfolios in government. At Foreign Affairs, he refocused Canadian foreign policy on the real world agenda. At National Defence, he led the troops in war with a care they reciprocated, and increased defence spending by half so that they would have the equipment they deserved. At Justice, he fought to restore Parliament’s prerogative to make the laws.
The mainstream news outlets spun a very different tale. It was all about MacKay’s looks, girlfriends, helicopter rides, and military procurement “scandals”. More of the fatuous journalism Canadians seem unable to escape. Talleyrand reputedly said it of the Bourbons, but he could have been talking about Canada’s media “elite”: “Ils n’ont rien appris, ni rien oublié”.
As an officer at Foreign Affairs, I spent a little time with Peter MacKay. He’s a man of substance, fortitude, and human decency – and he’s all these things whatever your political leanings. A few personal memories.
When MacKay became foreign minister in February 2006, the world was aflame with war and anger. At Foreign Affairs, he was bombarded with briefing sessions and “transition books” offering background information on just about every conceivable subject from Afghanistan to the ozone layer. Simultaneously, the new minister had to prepare for the obligatory meetings with foreign visitors and attendance at international conferences. In April it was a NATO meeting in Sofia, in June a G-8 meeting in Moscow. MacKay mastered it all as no “intellectual lightweight” could conceivably have done – and few journalists for that matter.
In July, a vicious month-long war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. On July 25 and 26, MacKay was at an emergency meeting in Rome of the “Lebanon Core Group” trying to work out how to end the hostilities and coordinate humanitarian assistance. At the end of the meeting, he then flew out to Malaysia, another half dozen time zones further on, to represent Canada at the ASEAN Regional Forum to discuss security issues in the Pacific with the likes of the Chinese, Japanese and Australians. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered him a lift on her government plane, but it was still a very weary minister who arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Walking into the hotel and conference complex, MacKay’s political staff peeled off and went to bed. He himself took a few minutes to prepare, then walked into the meeting knowing very few of the participants, delivered a forceful opening statement, and participated in the discussions for the rest of the day. That evening, he attended the gala dinner.
When the conference ended the next day, the Minister wanted to have his photo taken with the entire Canadian delegation. As they were lining up for the photographer, Condi Rice walked by with a couple of staff and commented on the camaraderie of the Canadians. Come and get in the picture, said MacKay. And she did. Somewhere in the departmental archives, there’s a picture of a Canadian foreign minister in top form impressing everyone he meets.
The featured image is a photo of Peter MacKay and Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, former US Secretary of State, at the Munich Security Conference in 2010. (Photo by Kathrin Möbius: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany)