Facing a $1M campaign debt, Peter MacKay considers running for Parliament again

Still recovering from the blow of losing the Conservative leadership race, Peter MacKay has quite a to-do list ahead of him: figure out why he lost, retire roughly $1 million in campaign debt and find a new job — or try to get his old one back.

Former Conservative leadership contender acknowledges debtload is ‘a big number’

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Peter MacKay speaks during the English debate in Toronto on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Still recovering from the blow of losing the Conservative leadership race, Peter MacKay has quite a to-do list ahead of him: figure out why he lost, retire roughly $1 million in campaign debt and find a new job — or try to get his old one back.

In an email to CBC News, MacKay said that since moving back to Nova Scotia last week, he has been focused more on his wife and three children than on his next career moves.

CBC News has learned that MacKay phoned in to a board meeting for the Conservative association in his long-time riding of Central Nova on Saturday. The riding association is calling on him to run again.

"When asked if he would run in the next election, [MacKay] said that all cards are on the table but it would ultimately be a decision he would make with his family," said a release from the association.

The riding association said that if MacKay decides he wants the Conservative nomination in Central Nova, it would open the nomination quickly to allow MacKay to "start campaigning as our official candidate as soon as possible."

Peter MacKay gets a kiss from daughter Valentia, 4, as he sits with his wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay to watch the results of the Conservative leadership contest on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

'Why close doors if you don't have to?'

MacKay clearly is leaving the door open to serving as an MP under the leadership of his former political rival, Erin O'Toole.

"I have not ruled out any future public service," he said in his email to CBC. "As I said in 2015, why close doors if you don't have to?"

MacKay cited a need to spend time with his young family when he announced in the spring of 2015 that he would not run for re-election in Central Nova.

A renewed public profile could help him raise donations to pay down a campaign debt of roughly $1 million.

"Yes, it is a big number and will require work to retire it," MacKay wrote.

The amount owing is surprising, given that MacKay's campaign raised more money than those of the other leadership contenders: $3.1 million as of the last available figures from early August.

His debt is roughly double what celebrity businessman Kevin O'Leary racked up during his failed run at the Conservative leadership in 2017.

His campaign also seemed to end the leadership race much deeper in debt than at least two of his rivals. O'Toole's campaign described the amount it owes as "negligible," saying any outstanding invoices would be repaid within weeks. Leslyn Lewis's campaign says she has no outstanding debt. Derek Sloan's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Fundraising roadblocks

Federal elections law gives party leadership candidates three years to raise enough donations to pay off their campaign debts. Failure to do so can result in consequences, including fines and even jail time.

While he acknowledged the campaign needs to retire "close to" $1 million in debt, MacKay said he hopes to cut down the total through negotiations with vendors. He said he believes the total will be well below $1 million when all the calculations are complete.

MacKay insisted he will be well-positioned to pay off his debts in the new year. He said he's been in contact with his fundraising team across the country.

He faces a multitude of challenges, however. Fundraising is always harder for losing candidates. It's even harder in the middle of a pandemic, with the prospect of a federal election call on the horizon.

While he said those circumstances will make his task "even more challenging," MacKay added he believes that virtual fundraisers and the in-person events he hopes to stage once the pandemic subsides will make up the difference.

"I have confidence in the commitments received already that we will be able to retire outstanding debt early in the new year," he said. "People are maxed out under fundraising rules for this calendar year."

Last week, MacKay left Toronto and drove his family halfway across the country to his home community of Pictou County, Nova Scotia. MacKay, his wife and their three children, aged 7, 4 and 2, are currently in a 14-day quarantine as part of pandemic restrictions in the Atlantic provinces.

He's now looking for work, having parted ways with the Bay Street law firm Baker McKenzie. MacKay said he remains on good terms with the firm.

He said he's now in talks with several law firms, businesses and organizations about future employment or board opportunities.

A 'forensic examination' of MacKay's loss

Another task left over from the leadership contest remains undone: the post-mortem. MacKay lost after having spent most of the campaign as the presumed front-runner, and with a substantial war chest backing him.

He said he is conducting a "forensic examination" of his loss to figure out where he fell short — and why the results in Quebec didn't resemble the campaign's projections.

"I don't want in any way to distract or detract from the work of the new leader. I just want to ensure clarity on what occurred," he wrote.

In the meantime, MacKay appears to be in no rush to return to the fray right away. In his email to CBC News, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of focusing on his wife and children right now, saying the campaign "took a toll on my family that became more apparent at the end."

And as he reflects on the campaign he just ran, MacKay said he's also enjoying the time-out.

"It felt great to be working outdoors with a shovel and rake and doing physical work where you can see immediate results," he said. "Quite a contrast from months of policy discussions and hundreds of zoom calls."


Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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