Working mother takes on political establishment

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

  • Hopeful Leadership Candidate Stronach

    Hopeful Leadership Candidate Stronach

Written by Scott Piatkowski

Apparently no longer content with simply owning politicians, Magna International CEO Belinda Stronach has determined that she wants to be one. While Stronach’s entry into political life will be greatly eased by her family fortune and extensive business connections, she faces significant obstacles in her bid to lead the newly emerged Conservative Party.

Although her leadership bid is her first attempt at electoral politics, it’s not as if the Stronach family has been absent from public life until this moment. Ironically enough, her father Frank ran as a Liberal in the 1988 federal election, a campaign during which the party claimed to be opposed to Free Trade. He was courting many of the same voters who now live in the new riding of Newmarket-Aurora, where Belinda Stronach plans to seek a seat for the Conservatives. Magna also played host to the widely-criticized out-of-legislature experience that masqueraded as the 2003 Ontario Budget presentation (read by Janet Ecker, now one of the spokespeople for Stronach’s campaign).

A more private, but equally influential, political role has been played by the Stronachs’ bulging bank accounts. Prime Minister Paul Martin ($55,000), the Harris/Eves Tories, Ontario PC leadership candidates including Tony Clement ($40,000), Tory leader Peter MacKay ($100,000), and even David Orchard are among the beneficiaries of their largesse. It has been widely reported that Belinda Stronach used that financial leverage to force the shotgun marriage of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives last fall.

At the time of the merger, Stronach categorically denied rumours that she was plotting to take over the newly merged party. In November, she told reporters “that's a definite no,” when they questioned her about it on a visit to a Parliament Hill. Of course, that didn’t stop her (or someone working for her) from registering her personal web domain name within days of the merger agreement being signed.

Now that she’s officially in the race, Stronach needs to define herself for party members and Canadians in general. Robert McDermid, a political science professor at York University indicates that “it’s not well known where she stands on many issues.” Even one anonymous Toronto business analyst commented to The Globe and Mail that “she's an unknown commodity. They keep her hidden.”

Unfortunately for all concerned, her opening press conference did little to remedy that situation. She promised to lead with “honesty, compassion, fairness, respect and integrity.” She informed us that she differs with the entire Conservative caucus on same-sex marriage (she supports it). She favours gun control, but opposes the gun registry. She smoked pot as a teenager, but thinks she should have a criminal record for having done so. She believes that Canadian soldiers should be fighting in Iraq but, then again, says that she’s “not a military expert” (as if that is a requirement for having an opinion on such a fundamental issue). Apart from that, her comments were what you might expect to hear from Paul Martin. Compare these two paragraphs, for example, one of which was spoken by Belinda Stronach and the other spoken by Paul Martin*:

  • “It is absolutely essential that we continue to lower our national debt load, in order to keep our interest rates low, continue to lower taxes, and keep the flexibility we need to respond to an unpredictable international economy. Governments must never forget the lessons of prudent fiscal management. That means always keeping a firm grip on spending — always, but essentially and especially in the uncertain times now facing the global economy.”
  • “I believe first and foremost in a strong economy. Only with a strong economy can we support social programs. We need to bake a bigger economic pie in this country to give Canadians the tools they need to compete in this fierce global environment… I would promote the creation of industry-based technology centres across the country that allow young people to learn the technological skills that they so desperately need to compete internationally.”

Stronach commented at her launch that “Our goal is not just to present an alternative to the Liberals. We plan to defeat them.” But, given how close the goals of the two parties have become, and given that Stronach had no problem giving $55,000 to Paul Martin last year, the question is, “Why bother trying?”

The danger of not having clearly defined positions is that one’s opponents are often able to “fill in the blanks”. Ms Stronach is vulnerable in three key areas: her lack of political experience; her lack of facility in French; and a personal wealth that is widely perceived to put her out of touch with the concerns of the average voter. While opponents within and outside the Conservative Party will seek to play up these vulnerabilities, Stronach’s campaign team is trying to minimize them.

Stronach and her spokespeople (and she has a lot of them) play up her business experience, deride “professional politicians”, and try to present her as a common person. That’s why her announcement was held at a Legion Hall instead of a country club. And, that’s why campaign sources worked overtime this week to portray Stronach as “a busy working mother” who can relate to ordinary Canadians because “she faces similar challenges juggling career and family” (which is especially hard to do at $12 million a year).

On the other side of the ledger, Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper, who had a head start on the other leadership candidates, says that the party doesn't have “the luxury of experimenting with on-the-job-training.” He added that “I can't write a cheque for my own campaign.” Clement’s people were even more brutal in their assessment: “She's Paul Martin in a cocktail dress. Why would we, as the Conservative Party, pick a leader like her, who cannot attack Martin for being Richie Rich with a private jet and wealthy friends?” said an anonymous campaign insider.

Perhaps that is why Paul Martin was the only person on Parliament Hill who appeared happy with her entry into the leadership race. Stronach, he says, possesses “great intelligence” and “brings a very different experience than the other candidates.” Smarting heavily from Jack Layton’s efforts to draw attention to his record in business and in cabinet, Martin would love to be relegated to the position of “second richest political leader”.

Meanwhile, the media honeymoon with Stronach will be a short one (and may, in fact, already be over). Toronto Star columnist James Travers correctly suggests that “the challenge for Stronach is clear. In just eight weeks she must demonstrate that she is the real deal, not a dilettante pushed by those with nothing to lose into the arms of a national media whose best tricks are turning a welcoming embrace into a fatal stranglehold.”

Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells didn’t waste any time going after Stronach in his blog. He savages her excuses for not learning French, comparing it to someone running for national office without understanding math. “I am committed to learning math. I will do my best to learn math. Oh, and French too. I'll be in the same class as Belinda Stronach.” Others, such as Globe and Mail reporter Roy MacGregor have poked holes in her armour for a lack of availability to media, outside of scripted events.

Another commentator who has unsheathed his knives early is Craig Oliver of CTV. “Up to now, she’s had a lot of flashy publicity because she hasn’t had to come out front and expose herself. But she did that today and frankly she gave a lot of memorized answers, out of context. Her speech, which was so carefully written by whomever she could afford to write it, was delivered in a very flat manner. It was like watching a movie scene of a bright young woman who can afford to buy herself a crack at the Prime Ministership… She kept saying she's not a professional politician. Someone should have told her that politics -- especially at the national level -- is not a game for amateurs. She’s going to have a very hard time.”

Not of this is to suggest that Belinda Stronach cannot win. Her opponents – Harper and Clement – both come with their own liabilities. But, unlike every other job that she has ever held, Stronach is going to have to compete very hard for this one.

* The first comments were Paul Martin’s. The latter belong to Belinda Stronach. Spot the difference.

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