Nova Scotia·Opinion

Peter MacKay played power like a pro, says Graham Steele

Graham Steele reflects on what it was like to deal with Peter MacKay as Nova Scotia’s political boss.

Retiring politician didn't invent the political system, but he played it pro

In Graham Steele's opinion column, he says MacKay played the political game like a pro. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Peter MacKay held three of the most prestigious posts in government, short of being prime minister — Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Justice.

Despite this gleaming resume, the early assessments of his legacy have been mostly unkind. Andrew Coyne, writing in the normally Tory-friendly National Post, calls him "a palpable cipher."

But, the job Peter MacKay loved the most was never on his business card. For nine years, he was the political minister for Nova Scotia. It was a role he loved, was good at, and played to the hilt.

Modern-day barons

For a long time, federal governments have assigned political responsibility for each province — or in the larger provinces, each region — to a particular minister. Regardless of their actual portfolio, the political ministers oversee all federal decisions affecting their domain.

The whole thing is positively feudal, really. These modern-day barons are allowed more or less free rein in their lands, provided they pledge allegiance to the king, and pay proper tribute.

Steele recalls MacKay as the "political Minister for Nova Scotia" - a role he loved. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Peter MacKay didn't invent the system, but he played it like a pro.

Being the political minister involves doling out contracts, favours and jobs in a way that is most likely to keep party members happy, and to put the federal government in a favourable light (in that order). Peter MacKay excelled at this part of politics. He was a young man with old-school ideas about how politics should be done.

Pipeline ran across MacKay's desk

If you were in the Nova Scotia government, you just had to accept that the pipeline to Ottawa ran across Peter MacKay's desk.

People probably imagine that there is partisan tension between federal and provincial governments, but there isn't, not usually. Everybody has a job to do, and they do it. A provincial government has so many points of contact with the federal government that it gets more done by getting along.

If there was any aggravation, it was over the obsessive micro-management of every dollar and every detail. Nothing was too small to escape the attention of MacKay and his staff.

Relations between the two governments are typically handled at a senior staff level. In the Dexter government, there were regular meetings between Dexter's chief of staff and MacKay's chief of staff. This is where the real work of federal-provincial relations gets done.

Stimulus and ships

From the time the Dexter government was elected in 2009, there was a lot to be negotiated with Peter MacKay's office.

The recession was on, stimulus spending had started, and there was an enormous amount of money that was to be allocated quickly to "shovel-ready" projects.

MacKay had definite ideas about where he wanted federal stimulus dollars to go. He was especially determined that as much as possible be spent on Highway 104, which is the major highway through his constituency. He simply wouldn't agree to other projects until the 104 was looked after.

My own interaction with MacKay was mainly as the provincial voice at a few joint federal-provincial funding announcements. At these events, MacKay was ever the gentleman.

Peter MacKay stands next to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Mississauga, Ont. in 2014. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The closest I saw MacKay to being truly annoyed was over the Ships Start Here campaign. "Any lobbying, advertising, arm-twisting, tub-thumping was just like pouring that money into Halifax Harbour," he said.

As a guy who did a pretty good line in tub-thumping himself, Peter MacKay's annoyance was understandable. Here was the biggest public procurement contract in post-war history. The integrity of the contract process demanded a strict hands-off on the part of all federal ministers. To MacKay, whose very political essence was to be hands-on, it must have been torture. There was no way he was going to let anyone else take the credit, if he couldn't take it himself.

When the shipbuilding announcement was scheduled, there was some suspicion in Darrell Dexter's office that it had been deliberately timed for a day he was scheduled to be out of the country. Dexter quietly changed his travel schedule so he was available for the announcement after all — but didn't tell MacKay's office, lest they find another way to shut him out.

Such is the stuff of federal-provincial relations.

Who will be Nova Scotia's next political baron? The only thing we know for sure is that there will be one. It's just hard to imagine the next person carrying out the job with quite the unapologetic panache of Peter MacKay.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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