Belinda Stronach on switching parties, women in politics & what will happen if the Liberals win ... or lose

‘It’s not where you sit in the House, it’s where you stand—it’s what are your principles’

Belinda Stronach speaks to the Journal in her campaign office on Dec. 22.
Belinda Stronach speaks to the Journal in her campaign office on Dec. 22.
Megan Clearly
Megan Clearly
Megan Clearly

For a rookie politician, Belinda Stronach has seen her share of the spotlight. Two days before a budget vote last May, the Newmarket-Aurora MP left her post as the international trade critic for the Conservative Party and joined Paul Martin’s minority government as minister of human resources and democratic renewal.

With Stronach’s vote, the Liberal government survived the May 19 budget vote and lasted six more months in power before its defeat by a no-confidence motion last November.

As one of the only MPs with recent experience in both major federal parties—Liberal Scott Brison is another—her insight doesn’t go unnoticed with less than two weeks before the Jan. 23 election. The Journal spoke to Stronach at her Aurora campaign office on Yonge Street on Dec. 22, the day the Canadian Press reported Elections Canada was investigating Stronach’s 2004 campaign expenses.

Stronach said the current allegations were completely false and only occurred because a journalist “went off on a tangent.” She said she had received confirmation Elections Canada wasn’t even investigating her expenses.

“It’s not accurate. We’re in the clear,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “It’s wrong. But it’s the damage, you know. I’m very upset by it because we run a very clean and tight ship.”

After twice leaving the interview to take calls from her Blackberry related to the allegations, Stronach returned.

“Imagine doing something really scandalous,” she said, smirking. “I didn’t even do anything here.”

Before she entered politics, the university dropout was the president and CEO of Magna International Inc., the multi-billion dollar auto parts corporation her father Frank founded. In 2002, Fortune magazine named her the second most powerful woman in business outside of the United States.

In 2004, she helped co-ordinate the merger of the former Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties into its current form, the Conservative Party of Canada. She announced her intention to lead the party shortly after. After losing the leadership bid to Stephen Harper, Stronach decided to run for office in her hometown riding of Newmarket-Aurora, a suburb north of Toronto. She won her seat by 689 votes.

“I’m very happy I got into political life, and I’ve got lots of energy left to continue,” Stronach said. “But I have to get re-elected first.” What follows is an edited version of the Journal’s 35-minute interview with Stronach.

The Journal: This winter election campaign wasn’t really even 48 hours old when Stephen Sommerville, the president of the Newmarket-Aurora Conservative Party Riding Association, told the Toronto Star that the election in this riding would be “a referendum on what Belinda did [crossing the floor].” How has your decision to switch parties in May affected your campaign stops so far?

Belinda Stronach: Well, first of all I disagree with the premise of his question. ... I should address perhaps the switch first, and I think that’s important.

I ran last time around on being a strong voice for this community. I will always stand up for what I think is in the best interest of Newmarket-Aurora, and in the best interest of Canada. And in my opinion, it’s not where you sit in the House of Commons, it’s where you stand—it’s what are your principles.

Back in May, there were some important principles at stake. I wanted to see that the budget was passed, I had a concern for national unity, and the third thing was Mr. Harper’s leadership.

On the budget, some important dollars were coming to Newmarket and Aurora. For example, for transit—to have public transportation, that’s one of our key issues in this community. ... That was critical. ... The second thing was national unity, and this is even more important at the end of the day.

I felt it was reckless of Stephen Harper to call an election when the Conservative Party had no base of support yet in Quebec. ... How can you speak in the nation’s interest when you have no presence there? ... So I think Stephen Harper has to do some explaining, why his principal political allies in this election are the Bloc.

The third thing was his leadership. I got involved in politics because I wanted to make a difference. I’m very proud of my time with the Conservative Party. I’m happy about the merger. I believe that’s important to strengthen the democratic process—that we have more than one political party and an effective opposition in this country. Having said that, it’s important in which direction that party matures.

I didn’t agree with the direction he was taking the party, and I wanted to see that it became more moderate, more progressive in its platform. A case in point is equal marriage legislation. I’ve spoken out about that. I do believe that people have the right to be treated equally under the law, and stand firmly behind that to this day. So that was fundamental to my decision to [pauses]—if I believe that it was in the best interest of this community.

... And yes, the opposition would like to have it that [my decision to leave the Conservatives to join the Liberals] is the ballot question so to speak. But I find out that, when I talk to people, the people say to me, “You know what? I couldn’t vote for you last time because I didn’t feel comfortable with your leader or with your party. And I’ll be voting for you this time.” Or [people say,] “The first time I ever voted Conservative [was] last time, and I did it because of you. And this time I’m going to find it easier to vote for you.” So I find I get a lot more of that than I get the negative. ... And I think people—in particular, young people—it’s much more about the person and the principles, not the label you are. ... And I may have switched political parties, but I didn’t switch the principles I stand for. I’m still a fiscal conservative and a socially progressive liberal.

Your party promised in the May budget $1.5 billion for post-secondary studies this year, and then in the fall promised an additional $9.2 billion spread out over the next five years, depending on a victory this winter. What do those numbers explicitly mean for university students in the midst of their studies?

OK, I’m glad you raised that. First of all, I’m very proud as the minister of human resources that we were able to secure the largest investment in post-secondary education and skills development in over a decade in this country. It’s close to $8 billion, and it does a number of things.

On the post-secondary education front ... what it will do is provide greater access and participation by Canadians. So about 55,000 more Canadians will be able to access post-secondary education ... There was $2.1 billion in improved debt measures, and one of the things we’re looking at is the Canada Student Loan: taking [its interest rate] from prime plus two per cent to prime plus one. So that would be major stuff ... easing the debt pressures on students. I think there’s $295 million in more scholarships as well ... .

Then there’s skills development. And there’s $3.5 billion in skills development. So post-secondary education was $4.1 [billion] and $3.5 [billion] in skills development ... . You know, it’s all about training and education. I think this is really important.

The prime minister also feels that way, that we’ve got to raise the profile and dialogue on education to the same status that health care has had in this country over the last couple years—the difference between investment and the future, and the future prosperity. And to me, I think the most important thing we can do as a nation ... to maintain our competitiveness advantage and prosperity is by investing in people.

So, we’ve started, and I hope I’m returned to Parliament because we want to—we’re not going to stop on this. I think that there’s more that we can do, but you know, we got the first, biggest investment in over a decade and [we’d] like it to keep going—that this becomes one of the top priorities in the nation. That’s my goal. I’d like to say the top priority in the nation, but if it’s in the top three, I’m cool.

When you switched parties in May, what was the Canadian media’s reaction to that?

They were shocked. I’ll never forget walking into the press gallery with the Prime Minister, and [CBC News Anchor] Don Newman was on TV at the same time and nobody had any idea of what was happening. And [Newman] was on TV and he said, “Holy mackerel.”

Actually, the media was quite fair, I would say. It was more, let’s say, former Conservatives that were obviously very negative and made statements that I think were really below the belt and unnecessary.

It’s one thing if you want to call me to task on the issues, but I think to ... call me a dipstick and things like that shows the level of intelligence and character of those individuals who made those statements.

And the second thing was I think more attention was given to my relationship or breakup with a former MP [Conservative Peter MacKay] than the important issues that were at stake. National unity, I think, is a pretty important issue that people need to have the opportunity to [learn about] the facts and ... the issues to make better decisions. And I think that it’s unfortunate that more attention was given to some of the personal stuff as opposed to the substantive issues.

But I’ve also been asked, “Is that because you’re a woman as well?” Perhaps to some degree, maybe that was a factor, and I don’t think guys often get asked what shoes they wear or what label they’re wearing ... But I’d like to see that we have more women running at the end of the day, and more women members of Parliament. It’s important.

How can feminism coexist with politics when one discovers, for example, that after you left the Conservative Party, Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford called you a “poor little rich girl” and a “treacherous wench”?

First of all, if you’re in politics you have to have thick skin. You have to be guided by principles and what you want to achieve on behalf of the country. You can’t be guided by negative headlines because some days you wake up and it’s a great headline, and some days you wake up and, you know, I’m dealing with what I dealt with this morning. ... You’re dealing with all kinds of situations and you’ve got to be motivated by what you can achieve and what’s in your heart and soul. That’s how you get through that kind of stuff. It’s not about the negative headlines.

But I think it sends unnecessary comments—it sends the wrong message to young people, both men and women I think. And a lot of women I talk to say, “Why would I want to put myself through that?” There are ways [women] can make a contribution to [their] community and [they’re] not out on the high wire, [they’re] not undergoing such negative comments or public scrutiny.

So I think people will look to other ways to make a difference ... . But at the same time, the thing that’s been surprising me is the support among women has gone up tremendously [for my campaign]. And I think many women can identify with having to put up with that kind of crap. But again, you’ve got to be guided by what you want to achieve, and not by what people say about you.

So why don’t you think there are many women in politics?

I think it’s a number of factors. To some degree, there’s a financial factor. Let’s face it, many women still have the responsibility for raising a family. And I think the negativity is a big part of it. I have talked to a number of women that say, “How can you live with that, how can you put up with that? I’d like to make a contribution too, but I just don’t want to do that.” I think it’s about bringing about greater civility in the House, would be one thing. And then there’s the financial aspect and taking a look also at—you know, how do we make sure that proper consideration is given to looking for women candidates at the nomination level.

And I still think at the end of the day it’s got to be the most qualified person and there has to be democratic processes. But I think, you know, just to make sure there are steps taken—that they look for women candidates.

The NDP suggested [in October] a change in parliamentary ethics whereby a member of Parliament who chooses to resign as a member of one party and cross the floor to join another has to first run in a by-election. What do you think of that proposal?

First of all, if it had been legislation at the time, it would not have affected my decision. I would’ve been happy to do it and face my voters. I made the decision to leave, but I’m facing voters now and they’ll decide if I’ve done a good job or not ... I think what’s important is that members of Parliament can really represent the views of their constituents.

To me, I’m loyal to this community. It’s being able to reflect the views of your constituency, I think, above the political party. You know, if you disagree with the leader, if you disagree very strongly with the direction of the party, you have to be able to represent those views and make a statement about those views.

The NDP bill would have given greater power to the party and to the leaders. So I think it’s important that members of Parliament can vote their conscience, represent the views of the people that elected them.

Now when that budget came to vote, Chuck Cadman talked a lot about voting for his constituency as an Independent MP. So I guess my question is why didn’t you sit as an Independent MP for that vote and then join later?

On that note, first of all, some people may say, “Look, she was [an] opportunist. She wanted to be a minister.” I say that’s a really lame excuse because first of all, it wasn’t guaranteed we weren’t going to have an election. I didn’t know how Chuck Cadman was going to vote, so I would’ve been prepared to be a minister for a day.

Now why didn’t I sit as an Independent MP? Quite simply, I thought about it—do I sit as an Independent? But at the end I feel I could have greater impact for my community and for this country as a minister.

That’s just the reality. You have more leverage. You can make a greater difference. And that’s why I got into this in the first place.

But I had made the decision to leave the Conservative Party first. That was already my decision, and then the question is then, “Now how do I go about it?” But at the same time, I made the decision to leave and I said, “Look, I want to make a difference for my community.” This is the best way I think I can make a difference [as a cabinet minister].

Part of your responsibilities as the minister responsible for democratic renewal included talk of some sort of proportional representation being incorporated in the electoral process. How different do you think the election atmosphere would be if we used some sort of proportional representation?

That’s difficult to speculate. I’m just making a guess, but where we’re at with democratic renewal—and the election postponed everything, but it’s up on the government’s website—is a citizen consultation process. It’s not academics, it’s not so-called experts or parliamentarians, it’s regular Canadians.

We’re hosting 11 round tables throughout the country—four dedicated to youth, in particular, and women—asking Canadians what are the values they’d like to see underpin their democratic institutions. So at the end of the day, people feel that the democratic institutions are working for them, that [the institutions] respect their hard-earned tax dollars, that we create value with that, and that they have greater faith in politicians. So that’s the first step we’re going to do, and that’s going to provide an impetus into the next step.

If you win your seat, what would your role in Paul Martin’s government be?

That’s up to Paul Martin. I’m thrilled to be minister of human resources and democratic renewal. To me, it’s one of the most important ministries in government. ... I’m honoured to have that privilege.

And what would happen if you lose?

I’m not thinking about that. We’re just working hard. We run like we’re the last ones in the race ... . And we’re out in the community doing things, we usually wrap up at a different pub every night and go out, and have fun doing this. I’m also respectful of the fact that the volunteers don’t have to do this. They want to make a difference, and it should be fun doing that.

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