HALIFAX — Peter MacKay’s decision to leave politics represents a serious blow for the Harper government and a final, symbolic farewell to the last vestige of the former Progressive Conservative party, pundits and critics in Atlantic Canada say.
Political science professor Jim Bickerton said even though MacKay is thought of as a strong advocate for the region, there is a lingering belief that it was MacKay who allowed the Progressive Conservative wing of the party to be swallowed up by the Canadian Alliance party in 2003.
As well, Bickerton said MacKay appears to have been kept on a short leash by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“There’s been a perception that he’s been in a situation with a prime minister who hasn’t always allowed him to fully express himself,” said Bickerton, who teaches at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. — part of MacKay’s riding.
“The perception down here is that Peter really hasn’t been able to represent the more Progressive Conservative side of the party in the way that it should have been after the merger.”
MacKay’s departure, coupled with that of senior cabinet minister John Baird, will hurt the party’s electoral fortunes, he said.
“The major kingpins … are dropping away one by one,” said Bickerton. “It certainly weakens the party, especially in Atlantic Canada where they are struggling to begin with.”
Federal Liberal candidate Bill Casey, a fellow Nova Scotian who once served in the Tory caucus with MacKay, issued a statement Friday saying all of the Progressive Conservative MPs who were serving at the time of the Alliance merger have since retired, were defeated or left the party.
“The Harper government will miss the progressive voice of Peter MacKay at the table,” Casey said in a statement.
Casey was expelled from the Tory caucus in 2007 when he voted against the Conservatives’ budget, saying it hurt Nova Scotia’s ability to benefit from its offshore oil and gas industry. He is running for the Liberals in the fall election, contesting his old riding in northern Nova Scotia.
Without MacKay, the Tories are facing a tough fight in Nova Scotia, where Conservative MPs Gerald Keddy and Greg Kerr have already announced they are not seeking re-election. The only Conservative incumbent running in the province is Scott Armstrong, who will face a challenge from Casey.
In an unusual twist, the federal Liberal party confirmed Friday that David MacLeod, the Liberal candidate set to challenge MacKay in his Central Nova riding, formally withdrew from the race Wednesday, citing personal reasons.
MacLeod, a former card-carrying Tory and veterans advocate with 27 years of service in the Canadian Forces, had said he wanted to unseat MacKay because the Conservative government had taken a “hostile” stance towards veterans.
Outside a Tim Hortons in Stellarton, N.S., which is also in MacKay’s riding, resident Wayne McNeil said he was surprised to hear the minister was leaving politics.
“I definitely think he was good for our community,” he said. “I talked to him a couple of times and he seemed like a very, very down-to-earth person.”
Marion Marshall made it clear she was not a fan: “I don’t care for Peter MacKay and I’m glad to see the end of him … I think if he’s leaving politics he should stay away from politics.”
Meanwhile, local politicians praised the former Crown attorney as a hard-working MP who delivered plenty of federal funds to Central Nova since he was first elected in 1997.
“It’s a major loss for Central Nova and all of us around here,” said Joe Hawes, mayor of the Town of Pictou. “It doesn’t matter what side of politics you belong to.”
Hawes was quick to hand credit to MacKay for getting the town a new sewage treatment plant and reviving the local shipyard.
However, Hawes said it was clear that MacKay’s workload as justice minister was taking a toll on his young family.
“He’s doing the right thing in the sense that he’s going to have a good family life.”
The mayor said MacKay has strong support in the riding, which is considered a Conservative stronghold.
“It’s no secret that Pictou County is a hotbed of conservatism with its Scottish background,” Hawes said. “Scottish people tend to be small-c conservative.”
MacKay has held the riding — redrawn in 2004 — since 1997. His father Elmer held the seat from 1971 until 1993, except in 1983-84 when he stepped aside to let Brian Mulroney contest the seat in a byelection. In the 2011 election, MacKay won by more than 12,000 votes.
“It’s a real blow,” said Hawes. “There’s big shoes to fill with his loss.”
– with files from Tim Callanan
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press