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At pivotal moment for military, MacKay is grilled about his future

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay speaks to reporters prior to the True Patriot Love Tribute Dinner in Toronto on Nov. 10, 2010.

Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail/darren calabrese The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper is facing a dilemma. He has to take major decisions on Defence, both at home and abroad, over the coming weeks and months.

And yet his Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, spent part of Wednesday evening fending off questions as to whether he has had talks with a Bay Street law firm to quit the government early in the new year.

At a Toronto charity dinner for military families Wednesday evening, Mr. MacKay rejected the suggestion that he was thinking about jumping ship, despite reports from credible sources that such conversations have taken place.

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"I've got the best job in this country and I'm thrilled to be here," the Defence Minister told reporters. "I have no plans to leave this job."

He declined to answer further queries, including whether he was in talks with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP - the firm in question.

Instead, Mr. MacKay silently walked away.

Senior management reached at Gowling declined to comment.

But the suggestion that Stephen Harper's government may have a lame-duck minister is damaging to the Prime Minister.

When Jim Prentice stepped down last week, Mr. Harper asked House Leader John Baird to take back his old Environment portfolio because the PM doubtless wants to hold off a cabinet shuffle until the new year, when he hopes to put a fresh face on the government before a possible election.

But the country needs a Defence Minister, as Canada considers whether and how to remain in Afghanistan after its military mission ends in 2011 and debate rages over whether to acquire a new fleet of F-35 fighter aircraft.

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That is why, if Mr. MacKay is going, Mr. Harper will want him to hold off until the new year. But it will be an empty portfolio in all but name. The problem for Mr. Harper is that, regardless of Mr. MacKay's final decision, his ability to serve in the cabinet is impaired.

Mr. Harper has told MPs that those who don't plan to run again in the next election should declare their intentions sooner rather than later, since there is a good chance the government will be defeated over its budget and an election called in the spring.

Despite his denials, it would not be wise to bet that a MacKay will be running in Central Nova next time out.

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