Stronach, Belinda (Interview)
Q: You're going back to Magna International, the family business, after three years and four months in Parliament. When you look back at your time in politics, what was the happiest moment?
A: There were lots of happy moments. Certainly getting re-elected the second time around as a Liberal was not only a moment of great joy but of great relief, because crossing the floor from the Conservative party was one of the toughest decisions I ever made. And putting all that effort into communicating to, first and foremost, my constituents why I did it, I felt somewhat vindicated because they re-elected me by 5,000 votes, a much greater majority.
Q: What was the hardest part?
A: When you look at the comments in the House of Commons, some of the negative slurs - you probably know which one I'm referring to - some were rude and obnoxious.
Q: Did Peter MacKay really call you a dog? Did you hear him?
A: All the tapes suggest that he did.
Q: But did you hear it?
A: On the tape, yes. That was one of the more disappointing things, but I think some good came of it. It's helped to maybe kick-start the debate about why we don't have more women in the House, and if lack of civility has something to do with that.
Q: You and StephenHARPERdidn't get along right from the start, did you?
A: I tried to get along. From the moment I lost the leadership, I made my public announcement that I was supportive of him. And as I said to him face to face, "Look, I had many chances to stab you in the back, and I never did that." I was always very positive.
Q: But did you ever say to yourself, "Here's someone I can really relate to and we can be buddies and have a long and fruitful political partnership?" Ever feel that way about him?
A: I tried to be helpful. I was the only Conservative member at the time from an urban riding in the GTA, and I said to many of my colleagues, "I'm really jealous because you don't have to knock on doors, you can go away on vacation and still get elected by 15,000 votes. I've got to earn every vote." And at the time I couldn't get them to pay attention to urban issues. I was very outspoken - constructively - but I was very careful to thread the needle. We didn't agree on same-sex marriage, we didn't agree on a few issues, but I was always respectful of his position.
Q: But privately you felt very limited in the caucus.
A: I felt that my efforts were somewhat wasted. We didn't agree on the budget, which was one of the reasons I crossed the floor. I didn't think we should be having an election at that time because I knew the CONSERVATIVE PARTY had almost no infrastructure in Quebec. I was more progressive in my social values than he was prepared to be. I think, bottom line, he always held it against me that I ran against him for leadership of the party. Prior to that, we had worked quite closely together on the merger of the party.
Q: Looking at where the Conservative party now sits in the polls in Quebec, and given the recent elections in Quebec - Harper's been given credit for helping the federalist cause - would you agree he's done something for national unity?
A: Before I get into that I just want to say, I often get asked, "Do you regret crossing the floor? You could have perhaps been in government," and I have no regrets because I would not be comfortable sitting in his government. I couldn't support the decision to change the mandate for the Status of Women and things like that. I wouldn't be able to compromise my principles. Do I think that they've done good for national unity? The next election will tell, right? In the last election a lot of things went right for Stephen Harper. The Liberals were held in low regard in Quebec because of the sponsorship scandal. The Liberals are still having a challenge recovering. So are the Conservatives good for national unity, or is there just a perceived lack of options for voters?
Q: You say the Harper government is more socially conservative than you're prepared to be, but they haven't moved against gay rights, or abortion rights. Many observers have been surprised that the Conservatives have been quiet on these issues.
A: In a minority government all parties are very careful not to do anything that will prevent them from achieving government. They're going to be very careful about decisions.
Q: You think the character of the government would be a lot different with a majority?
A: I think they will be bolder, yes. There are people who have good intentions in every party, but there is a strong social conservative influence in this Conservative government.
Q: I was looking at the coverage you've received since announcing that you're leaving Parliament, and it's a bit of an irony that a lot of pundits think your greatest contribution was your role in bringing the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties together. You're remembered most for building the party you left. Do you look back on the merger as an accomplishment?
A: Yeah, I do see it as an accomplishment. We only had one party in power for a significant amount of time - the LIBERAL PARTY - and I think competition is good. It forces political parties to be responsive to the people they serve, to look to new ways to engage members and earn their trust. The rise of the Conservative party is going to force the Liberals to modernize and become more open. I'd like to see that, just as I'd like the Conservative party to become more progressive - but parties take on the character of their leader.
Q: How is your relationship with StéphaneDION?
A: Good. I feel that I have input, it's constructive, it's professional.
Q: One might argue that after a very active and vigorous apprenticeship, you're ready for a bigger role and you shouldn't be stepping down.
A: I'm still very interested in the issues, but I have two children, a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old. In a minority government it's a huge sacrifice for family. I also have a father who's approaching 75 - although he probably doesn't want me to highlight that - but he's looking to the future. And the auto industry is in a state of crisis. Magna has some pretty significant opportunities and decisions to make, and he asked me back in January if I would consider returning. I wanted to ignore his request because I do have a passion for this. But your parents do get older, and my kids are getting older, and they're going to be in university in a couple years, and I'll be able to work closer to home and be influential in the future direction of Magna. You have to ask, "Where's the best use of my energy?"
Q: You've moved around a lot in both your personal life and your professional life. Would you describe yourself as a restless person?
A: No, I think I'm maybe more ambitious than some people. But who wants to be unambitious?
Q: Some people just pick one thing, put their head down, stay with it.
A: There's a lot of consistency in my life. Magna - I was there for 15 years. I still have very good relationships with my two ex-husbands. And I've always had an interest in politics. So it's always been business and family and politics, and you have to figure out what balance makes sense for you at the time.
Q: If and when you come back to politics, is it guaranteed it would be as a Liberal?
A: We'll have to see how the parties evolve. A lot could change in the parties, with the leaders. I don't think my values will change but the parties could be different.
Q: You arrived in Ottawa with a high profile. I think Maclean's called you the most, or the only, glamorous presence in Canadian politics. Did that get in the way of your career?
A: Thank you for asking. That was a frustration, because a lot of attention was paid to the shoes or the hair or the label and I had a lot of well-respected journalists in private say to me, "I'm really embarrassed but my editor asked me to find out what label you're wearing." Of course you're going to tell them - you don't want reporters to get in trouble. All you can do is keep coming back to the issues. But it was frustrating - that's not why I got into politics. I got in for the issues.
Q: But you did dress well, maybe better than you needed to. And you threw great parties, again maybe better than you needed to ...
A: No, I like to show my appreciation to people, especially the volunteers - it's nice if they can be appreciated and respected. But we didn't throw that many parties. We actually just had good music and lighting in our parliamentary office parties from time to time. And I don't know about the dress. I prefer to wear jeans and a T-shirt, a blazer. But they forced me to wear dress pants in the House.
Q: What about having a relationship with somebody else who's in politics and on the Hill? How do you look back at that?
A: I highly recommend choosing someone in the same political party. That was one of my tougher moments. When I get asked about regrets, what I do regret is where you unintentionally hurt somebody.
Q: Did you hurt Peter MacKay?
A: There's no question he was extremely upset. I didn't quite appreciate his partisan roots because I didn't grow up in that kind of household. With us, it was about what's the best way to do things and make it work. Party loyalty is more important to him, and I underestimated the consequences, the deep partisan roots he had.
Q: Do you talk to him?
Q: Do you regret that?
A: Why, sure. Any time you have a close personal relationship with someone, to not be able to communicate, it's unfortunate.
Q: What's the nature of your relationship with Tie Domi?
A: I don't really talk about that. I've never really talked much about my personal life.
Q: But it's out there.
A: I know, but it's one thing if all parties choose to communicate. In Peter's case, we were two public figures. But when there are consequences for other people, I'd rather keep that quiet.
Q: This isn't my field of expertise, Belinda, but am I wrong that you've been seen in public recently - you're at least friends, right?
A: Yeah, we're good friends. That's all I'm going to say. We remain good friends.
Q: How do your children look at your political involvement? Are they interested?
A: Well, I've become the subject of many civics classes, which probably makes them want to crawl under their desks. But I talk to my kids about everything. They are incredibly nice people, they're strong, and they've made a big sacrifice. Just before I finally made the decision I talked to my son and he said, "Mom, it would be nice to have you at home, but I support you in whatever you decide." That chokes me up when I hear that.
Q: You can't ask for more than that.
A: I can't ask for more than that, and I know my daughter feels the same way.
Maclean's April 30, 2007