By Bruce Cheadle, THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA: Peter Gordon MacKay, whose colourfully public love life all but eclipsed his role as one of the architects of the modern Conservative party, is stepping off the field of electoral battle.
A one-time Crown attorney who rose to the rank of justice minister and attorney general of Canada, MacKay was set to announce Friday that he won’t seek re-election in his Nova Scotia redoubt after 18 years as a member of Parliament.
The perennially youthful cabinet jock turns 50 in late September, about the time he and his wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam are expecting their second child.
It marks the end of a long and under-examined alliance with Stephen Harper, with whom MacKay _ as the newly minted Progressive Conservative party leader _ completed a merger deal in October 2003, just six months after winning the PC leadership on a platform of a no-merger deal with Harper’s Canadian Alliance.
Two weeks after winning the PC crown, MacKay yukked it up at the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner at his own expense: “I’ve been called treacherous, stupid, venal, lazy … and that’s only by the Tories!”
Since 2006 he’s held the most senior roles in Harper’s Conservative cabinets _ foreign affairs, national defence, justice _ yet was not publicly perceived as an influential heavyweight in the inner workings of the tight Conservative power structure.
Rather, it was MacKay’s breezy personality and aristocratic good looks _ and a passion for rugby _ that seemed to define him.
He was voted “sexiest male MP in the House of Commons” six years running by the Hill Times, an inside-the-Queensway politics trade newspaper. His periodic paramours made national news.
His marriage to the glamorous Iranian-born Afshin-Jam made the cover of Hello! Canada.
MacKay’s breakup with fellow MP, Liberal floor-crosser and Magna auto parts heiress Belinda Stronach in 2005 was the stuff of romantic farce _ complete with a mournful photo-op with a borrowed dog on a Nova Scotia farm.
And his flirtatious banter with Condeleeza Rice, then the U.S. secretary of state, caused ripples all the way to Washington.
The son of Elmer MacKay, a former minister in the government of Brian Mulroney, Peter was somewhat to the manor born.
He was raised in rural Nova Scotia and, later, Ottawa, an idyllic childhood that came complete with some time being educated in a one-room schoolhouse.
“It was like being on the set of an old-time move. It was perfect,” he told Bob Plamondon in his book “Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics.”
After winning a seat in Parliament at age 32, his run for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 2003 caught no one by surprise and he was the front-runner throughout.
He defeated Jim Prentice on the fourth ballot. Prentice, incidentally, also went on to become a Harper cabinet minister before leaving for private life as a bank executive and then a brief, unsuccessful stint as Alberta premier which ended in electoral disaster earlier this month.
MacKay didn’t run for the leadership of the newly merged Conservative party, and he has served as a loyal cabinet minister to Harper despite some tempestuous portfolios.
When Ben Harper, the prime minister’s eldest child, was small, MacKay used to take him to hockey practice if Harper couldn’t.
But he’s made news too often for contretemps, including a flight from a private Newfoundland fishing lodge aboard a coast-guard search-and-rescue helicopter and an ugly, public bun fight with the chief justice of the Supreme Court over an inadmissable court appointee.
Still, the youthful MacKay leaves politics relatively unscathed and remains a potential Harper successor as Conservative party leader.
Asked in 2001 whether he’d seek the Progressive Conservative leadership if Joe Clark stepped down, MacKay gave an answer that may well apply today.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics it’s ‘never say never.’ Jean Charest taught me that.”
© 2015 The Canadian Press