FREDERICTON -- Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay says he's keeping his eyes on the issues, but he still has plenty of time to consider whether to enter the federal Conservative leadership race.
The leadership convention is now set for May 2017, and MacKay said his priority at the moment is to spend time with his young family.
"There's still a lot of time," he said Thursday. "I'm keeping a close eye on things across the country and it's never far from my mind."
He was the final leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada before he and Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper agreed to merge the parties in 2003. He went on to serve in several senior portfolios in the Harper government.
MacKay was in New Brunswick Thursday to lend support to a friend, Fredericton MLA Brian Macdonald, who launched his bid for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party.
Recent polls have named MacKay as an early frontrunner for the federal leadership, but he said it's not his intention right now.
"It is humbling of course to be considered among many of the great potential leadership candidates amongst the Conservative party. My immediate future is with my family and really pursuing a career in the private sector," he said.
MacKay said a decision on becoming a leadership candidate is more about timing than other factors.
"Having been through a leadership contest in the past that was nine months, I know that 16 months from this date is a very long time to be involved in any kind of contest, so it is not something I have been factoring into my future at this point," MacKay said.
Geoff Martin, a political science professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said he expects MacKay will enter the race and is using this "quiet time" to line up supporters.
MacKay did not run in last October's federal election that saw the Liberals win a majority government and capture all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, including MacKay's former Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova.
Martin said he believes that people like MacKay and former Foreign Affairs minister John Baird got out early because they saw the imminent defeat.
"One of the strategies is that you get out and refresh yourself and you're not part of the team that wears the defeat," Martin said.
"Now Peter MacKay can come back along with others and try to rebrand themselves and rebrand the party," he said.
Despite the Conservatives' defeat, MacKay said Thursday that he thinks the party has a positive future.
"We came through the last election with 32 per cent, a hundred seats in the House of Commons. I can remember very lean times when it was Elsie Wayne and Jean Charest, so we have lots of history to draw upon, but most importantly in this rebuilding process it is reaching out and engaging Canadians on the issues that matter to them."
Businessman Kevin O'Leary, a former star of CBC-TV's Dragon's Den, has also been identified in recent polls as a potential frontrunner for the leadership. MacKay said it's positive whenever anyone can generate public discussion of the party.
"I think, as others including (interim leader) Rona Ambrose have said, having a broad, open, inclusive contest is always good to reinvigorate a party. We not only need a big tent, we need a big stadium, a national draw and I think you'll see that happen over time."