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One of the perceived front-runners in the race to replace Conservative Leader Scheer, Mr. MacKay, seen here in Stellarton, N.S., on Jan. 25, 2020, served as foreign minister, justice minister and defence minister under Harper.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Peter MacKay says he “will never apologize” for a Harper-era law that was struck down, and found to be cruel and unusual punishment by the country’s top court.

In a wide-ranging interview this week with The Globe and Mail, Mr. MacKay defended the mandatory victim surcharge, which was ruled unconstitutional. He also said the victim bill of rights that doubled down on the surcharge is among his biggest accomplishments from his time in government.

Looking forward, Mr. MacKay said if he was elected, he would cut personal taxes – favouring the Liberal approach of increasing the basic personal exemption. And he said Canada needs to meet its 2030 greenhouse-gas emissions targets, but wouldn’t say where he stands on those set for 2050.

One of the perceived front-runners in the race to replace Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Mr. MacKay served as foreign minister, justice minister and defence minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper. Before entering federal politics in 1997, Mr. MacKay was a prosecutor in Nova Scotia.

He did not run for re-election in 2015, and is a lawyer for Baker McKenzie in Toronto.

“I will never apologize for having stood up for victims,” Mr. MacKay said this week. “And I think that the victim surcharge would and could and should work well for Canadians.”

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law in 2018.

The mandatory victim surcharge was a centrepiece of the former Conservative government’s crime agenda. The Conservatives said the penalty – $100 for each minor crime, and $200 for each major one – would promote accountability among offenders and help pay for victims’ services.

The legislation, however, “took away any and all discretion” from judges and had “odd features" that meant someone convicted of murder could be fined less than a person with several minor breaches, Queen’s University assistant law professor Lisa Kerr said. The court found that the surcharge treated the poor “more harshly,” and could further disadvantage and stigmatize them.

Prof. Kerr said judges tried to find workarounds to the law by giving some offenders lengthy time periods to pay the fine. The government responded by legislating the time frames for the surcharge through the victim bill of rights.

Mr. MacKay pointed to the bill of rights when asked what his biggest accomplishment was in government. “Entrenching rights for people who have suffered at the hands of others was something I’m extremely proud of,” he said.

The bill was a “first step” in creating a statutory framework that “recognizes victims’ rights in the criminal process,” said Marie Manikis, a McGill University associate law professor. However, she said that in some cases, the bill is “vague and limited."

She said it’s ironic that the rights bill gave “unfettered discretion” to agencies charged with implementing those rights “without redress if they fail to do so,” while in the case of the surcharge, judges were given no discretion in how it was applied.

Mr. MacKay has frequently touted his experience in government as he makes his bid for Conservative leader. He has promised to make government smaller and focus on a “growth and opportunities agenda.” Mr. MacKay didn’t give any specific examples for how he would downsize government if he becomes prime minister, saying he would conduct a program review.

He said he would increase the basic income exemption beyond what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans. The Liberals said they would increase the exemption to $15,000 by 2023 for the majority of Canadians. Mr. MacKay wouldn’t say how much more he will increase it, but said Canadians are taxed “to the hilt.”

In the past election Conservatives were criticized for their climate-change policies, which experts said would lead to an increase in emissions. Mr. MacKay said Canada needs to “do more” to meet its pledge to cut emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, but called the goal to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century “aspirational.”

“We can get to net zero and destroy our entire manufacturing sector and have everybody you know, hit with these punitive taxes and get to net zero, and we will have devastated our economy,” he said.

Mr. MacKay would scrap the consumer carbon tax, but said measures that he supports include a heavy-emitters carbon tax, transitioning from coal to natural gas, and carbon capture and storage.

Asked repeatedly what he means when he calls the 2050 emissions target “aspirational,” he said, “Listen, you don’t get to tell me what my answer is. I’m telling you, it’s aspirational.”

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