Belinda Stronach (Profile)

IF STEPHEN HARPER is the stiff-lipped conscience of the new Conservatives, Belinda Stronach is their resident rock star.

Stronach, Belinda (Profile)

IF STEPHEN HARPER is the stiff-lipped conscience of the new Conservatives, Belinda Stronach is their resident rock star. When the 38-year-old rookie MP arrives at the Palais des Congrès in Old Montreal to register for the party's inaugural policy convention, she steps off the escalator like a blast of colour amid a sea of navy blue suits and the odd Stetson. Dressed in a vivid green Hugo Boss leather jacket in honour of St. Patrick's Day, striped satin skinny pants, a chunky pearl necklace and taupe stilettos, she looks out of place. Picture Gwyneth Paltrow at a gathering of accountants.

Stronach may not have won the party leadership last year, but within moments the room appears to reconfigure around her. Teenagers and middle-aged men, blushing and shuffling their feet, ask her to pose for a photo. Some whip out a pen and her old campaign shots for a quick autograph. Others simply want to gush over the good job she's doing, compliment her on her ensemble, or remind her of the time they met. Smiling or nodding attentively, Stronach is patient and gracious. She gets this all the time.

She inches her way toward the registration desk at the far end of the foyer, flanked by attractive young aides who are poised to step in should any of her admirers become too demonstrative. Could this be fun for her? "It's a great honour to be acknowledged for the good work you're doing for the party," she says after a moment's consideration. "I love people. I wouldn't have gotten into politics if I didn't care about people and this country. So, yes, it's fun for me."

Less fun, perhaps, for Stephen Harper. Several hours earlier, the party leader had staged a media photo-op for his arrival. He descended on the escalator with his wife, Laureen, waving and smiling stiffly, while a team of Conservative youth in yellow Harper T-shirts cheered and shook noisemakers below. The light reflecting through the building's coloured-glass windows made the scene look vaguely ecclesiastical. The fact that, even with the manufactured hoopla, Harper couldn't generate the kind of adulation heaped upon Stronach is a recurring theme - and a source of endless frustration among devoted Harperites. She's got a lot of style, they say, but where's the substance?

STRONACH IS a creature the likes of which Ottawa has rarely seen, like something out of a Jackie Collins novel. Young, single and beautiful, she's a twice-divorced heiress who has been linked by the tabloids to former U.S. president Bill Clinton. She has a pro-business agenda, socially progressive ideas, and the backing of some of the biggest names in Canadian business and politics. In January 2004, when she relinquished her lucrative job as CEO of Magna International Inc. to run for the leadership of the new and united CONSERVATIVE PARTY of Canada, she helped bring a fresh cachet to an organization perceived as stodgy and male. Some say she's accomplished the inconceivable: she's given the Conservatives a hint of sex appeal. In January, Stronach confirmed to great fanfare that she was dating Peter MacKay - the boyish, chisel-jawed MP for Central Nova who also serves as deputy leader. They've quickly become the party's "it" couple, generating gossip and intrigue wherever they go.

But while Stronach's star power has been her most valuable asset, it's also a liability. It naturally begs the question: what has she done to deserve it? She is arguably subject to more intense personal scrutiny than any other politician working today, which may simply go with the territory of being a good-looking, high-profile woman in a position of power. But chalking up the criticism to institutional chauvinism is too easy - she has no political grounding, but considerable influence. "She's royalty," says Senator Michael Meighen - something a lot of politicians would give their right arm for. "But right now, she's more celebrity than politician." Some members, particularly old-school Reformers, see her pro-choice stance and her support for same-sex marriage as a threat to the traditional values they view as the bedrock of conservatism. Others doubt her commitment to Harper, alleging she is already campaigning for the next round - with the support of MacKay - and trying to use her money and connections to hijack the party and transform it into Liberal Lite.

Much was made of the fact that, when she was asked to fill only a minor speaking role at the convention last month, she declined. "I would've been happy to give an address on issues I'm passionate about - economy, jobs, prosperity, competitiveness," she later said. "But I wasn't asked to deliver a message of substance." Some interpreted this as the behaviour of a diva, who, not landing the starring role, chooses not to perform at all. "With something like that, I think you just do what is asked of you," said one Conservative MP who preferred not to be named. "One of her adjustments is going from CEO. Everybody would like to be front and centre all the time, but the reality is we have one leader, and everybody has to support that leader and be acting as a team."

Still, there has been a great show of public support - externally and from within the party - for her work in Parliament and for her value-added major league business experience. Many believed that after her leadership loss to Harper in March 2004, she would flee back to Magna, the multi-billion dollar auto parts empire founded by her father, the formidable Frank Stronach. Instead, she campaigned hard for a seat in her home riding of Newmarket-Aurora in southern Ontario in last June's federal election, ultimately winning by a mere 689 votes. Her peers now say she's one of the most devoted and well-liked MPs in the Conservative caucus, serving as international trade critic, speaking out on issues of competition, relations with the U.S., job security and youth involvement. When she's not in Ottawa or attending to her riding, she's flying across the country giving speeches, listening to local concerns and attending fundraising events. "She wants to learn and she's learning very quickly," says Liberal MP Bernard Patry, who chairs the standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade, of which Stronach is a member. "She's a team player and she asks good questions. She doesn't want to be a star now. She wants to do the job of any other MP."

BY THE TIME Stronach makes her way back to the Hotel Intercontinental, where she'll stay for the duration of the convention, she's pressed enough flesh to push even a mild germaphobe over the edge. In person, she is down-to-earth, even a little shy. She's attractive, but not intimidatingly so - more in a stylish-soccer-mom-next-door kind of way. As fashion-conscious as she is by Parliament Hill standards - with a penchant for Armani, Gucci and Chanel - she's clearly uneasy with the glamour-girl talk. "I get asked, 'Who are you wearing?' quite a lot," she says quietly. "I buy what I like, what I'm comfortable in. And fashion is fun. It's part of pop culture - it's nothing I take too seriously." Before Stronach announced her run for the leadership, she briefly retained the services of Bonnie Brownlee, who formerly served as Brian and Mila Mulroney's consultant. But she decided against any help during the campaign. "Belinda Stronach knows what she wants," says Brownlee. "She doesn't need a lot of help when it comes to her look and the image she wants to portray."

Stronach winces when Harper's leadership victory speech is mentioned. In it, he thanked her, but added that "she generated significantly more glamour than I could bring." The comment was widely interpreted as a not-so-subtle dismissal of her as a candidate. But she's not willing to forgo the finery. "Hey - if people say I bring glamour, that's fine," she says. "I'd like to think it's more of a positive energy. For me the substance is important. Hopefully I can add value to the debate we have in the House of Commons."

If she feels the need to play down anything, it's her personal wealth - in 2003, she drew a reported $7.4-million salary at Magna - which she concedes is not something the average Canadian voter can relate to. Stronach likes to remind people that when her father immigrated to Canada from Austria in 1954, he was extremely poor: "He came with a few dollars in his pocket and the know-how of a tool-and-die maker." And she points out that she had a "very regular suburban upbringing." Stronach grew up in a cement-block house built by her father on the outskirts of Aurora, Ont., attended public schools along with her younger brother, Andy, and worked for her father in the summertime, photocopying or doing basic accounting work. "We weren't always well-to-do," she says. "It was more so in high school, when my father had a number of factories already, that people in the community started to recognize there was success there."

By the time Belinda was 21, Magna was pulling in over $1 billion a year in sales. In the 1990s, Frank Stronach built the opulent gilded compound - featuring a golf course and stables - in Aurora that serves as the company's corporate headquarters and home to the family. But, Stronach says, "it was always important to me that people like me for who I am as a person, not for the money or what you can do for them. So I was very sensitive, not boasting about things."

TRYING TO GET a sense of what's behind the buffed and polished image is tricky: Stronach's guarded style makes her somehow inscrutable. Publicly, she's not one to crack a joke or make an off-the-cuff remark. She becomes most animated when speaking about the issues she's chosen to champion - the economy and job creation. But too often she sounds as if she's reading from a set of prepared briefing notes filled with statistics and platitudes. Conservatives, she says, need to "focus on issues that unite us from coast to coast." On the economy: "Canada needs to be able to compete in this global economy. We must have a vibrant economy so we can have a good social framework." On Canada-U.S. relations: "Canada is a great trading nation - we have to approach the relationship intelligently and look for win-win scenarios."

Even her explanation of why she entered politics feels oddly scripted. "Public service is important," she says. "Especially if you're more fortunate and well-to-do - there's a greater responsibility to give back." Her involvement began behind the scenes: Stronach is widely credited as one of the main movers behind the December 2003 merger of the Canadian Alliance and the old Progressive Conservative party. According to her, she'd grown tired of more than a decade of Liberal rule and felt Canada needed a strong opposition party. She already knew MacKay, she says, then the leader of the Tories, having done some fundraising for him. She didn't know Harper, head of the Alliance, but she called him to broach the idea, arguing a coalition would be for the good of Conservatives everywhere, and reportedly holding out the carrot of an infusion of much-needed funds. "I coordinated the meetings so that merger discussions could take place," she says. When those talks resulted in a united party with the potential to end "11 years of unchecked Liberal government," she says, the timing seemed to be right for her to publicly enter politics.

There are, of course, those who say Stronach has taken too much credit for the merger. "She's not the mother of that accord," says William Johnson, political analyst with CPAC and author of the upcoming book Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada. "The most she did was bring them together, but that was like one step in a mile-long journey to union." Brian Mulroney, Peter Munk and "all the big money men," Johnson says, were pushing both sides, warning that the purses weren't going to open until there was some coalition - a lengthy, painful process that involved hefty compromise on both sides. "I do think part of the reason her role was so magnified is that she's a good-looking billionaire's daughter," he says. "If she had been ugly and 83 years old, no one would have ever heard of her."

And there's more than one version of how the merger transpired. At the time of the negotiations, MacKay was lauded in the press for his selflessness in accepting a union, given the unlikelihood of his becoming party leader because of the Tories' weakened support and poor financial status. But some conspiracy minded Conservatives now say that MacKay and Stronach were involved even during the talks - and that her intention all along had been to seek the leadership of a united party. According to this scenario, MacKay, smitten, put his ambitions on hold to further Stronach's career.

FROM THE MOMENT she announced her candidacy for the leadership of the new, united party, there's been frenzy surrounding Stronach. She was immediately criticized for her lack of clear ideas, for having a poor grasp of policy, for refusing to take part in network-hosted TV debates with her rivals, Harper and Tony Clement. She repeatedly used clichés, and fought charges that she wasn't up to the job with lines like, "I know what I know and I know what I don't know" - as though admitting to inexperience was tantamount to overcoming it. The press chewed her up, labelling her run "the blonde ambition campaign," and dubbing her "Paul Martin in a cocktail dress."

But she had powerful connections - and when the early media pressure seemed too much to handle, one member of Magna's global advisory board stepped in. Brian Mulroney contacted his former press secretary, Mark Entwistle, and asked him to help Stronach's campaign. "I joined her about a week into it, and tried to instill a little order into the whole process," says Entwistle. "Brian believes she has great potential and a great future." Stronach ultimately put together the best campaign team money could buy, which included veteran organizer John Laschinger, Ontario Tory strategist Jaime Watt, and Rod Love, a long-time Reform politico. In addition to Mulroney, she also had the public support of former Ontario premiers Mike Harris, currently on Magna's board of directors, and Bill Davis, who retired from the board last summer.

Though Stronach lost, she won a bigger portion of the vote than anyone initially thought possible. "Because of her background and the boards she's sat on, she has a constellation of networks which are amazingly deep and wide," says Entwistle. "People whom she knows and who think a lot of her and who give of their time freely if she needs them." Just some of the perks of being Frank Stronach's little girl.

She began working full-time at Magna in 1986 after a one-year stint at York University, moving up the ranks quickly and getting elected to the board of directors in 1988, at 23. Seven years later, she made vice-president. When Magna found itself seeking a new CEO in 2000, she says, the management team went to the board and recommended she take the helm. "My father wasn't so keen at the time," she says. "You're out there publicly and if you mess up, it's in a very public way." She was appointed CEO in February 2001, and president in January 2002. During her tenure, Magna International enjoyed record profits each year and its share value nearly doubled. In 2002 and 2003, Fortune magazine ranked her the second most powerful woman in international business.

But her pedigree comes with a price. The drawback to her Magna-made connections is the persistent suspicion that she's the public face for a set of private interests, and not the one making the decisions for Team Belinda. Similar criticism surrounds her work at the company. Current and former Magna employees quietly scoff at her leadership role, alleging that her father was pulling the strings all along and that she had very little involvement in day-to-day operations. "Belinda was never equipped to do that job," says one former executive. "She doesn't know what the plants do, doesn't know the processing, doesn't even know, other than broadly, what each of the groups do. You can't talk business strategy with her - because she's not a strategist."

IT'S 7 A.M. on day two of the convention and Stronach, looking fresh in a tailored pinstriped suit, a crisp white shirt and crocodile stilettos, is having breakfast at the hotel and examining the previous day's coverage of herself in the newspapers. She reads aloud a reference to MacKay as her boyfriend, and rolls her eyes. "Boyfriend? I'm sure he'll appreciate that." Curiosity over the couple's relationship is intense, particularly given how carefully they appear to monitor their public interactions. Of course, a fascination with Stronach's personal life far predates MacKay.

She's been married twice, most recently in 1999 to Johann Olav Koss, a Norwegian Olympic gold medal-winning speed skater, who signed a prenuptial agreement. They divorced in 2003 for undisclosed reasons, amid a swirl of rumours that Belinda had been seen cavorting with Clinton. (Their photograph had run in the New York Daily News, with the caption "Bubba's blonde pal." She denies any romance.) She is said to have had a friendship with John F. Kennedy Jr., having met with him a week before he died, reportedly to discuss investing in his political magazine, George. Earlier, she was married to Donald Walker, currently co-CEO at Magna, and the father of her two children, a son, Frank, now 13, and a daughter, Nikki, 11. They divorced in 1995, and Stronach shares responsibility for the children with Walker and his new wife.

She and MacKay have made a concerted effort to keep their relationship out of the spotlight. At the convention, they maintain a distance, always keeping their conversations guarded and professional, even at social functions. (They're spotted several times at the Intercontinental, though it's unclear whether they're staying together.) The couple has had requests to speak jointly at party-related events, but have so far declined. "We have our own distinct identities," says MacKay. "For Belinda, she is new to this and I don't want to impact negatively on what she's trying to do in terms of making her mark in national politics. We're not trying to present ourselves as a political couple. We're more focused on personally getting along."

Somehow MacKay and Stronach have managed to maintain a relationship despite the fact that, since Stronach entered politics, her life has been a whirlwind, with a schedule - orchestrated via the BlackBerry she clutches at all times - that appears to be more complex and demanding than the Prime Minister's. "I did travel a lot as CEO," she says, "but the difference with politics is it sucks up more of the weekends. It really is 24/7." In Ottawa, she resides at the Château Laurier, but most weekends, she commutes back to Aurora to spend time with her children and to keep on top of goings-on in her riding. "I had to work hard to win my seat and I don't take that for granted," she says. Free time - to spend with friends, or even catch a movie - is not something she has a lot of. She mentions that two years ago, she bought a place in Old Montreal, "while I was still CEO and had a good paycheque." It's an old building that's being gutted and restored. The renovation will finally be complete this summer, she says, although she doesn't imagine she'll have a lot of time to spend there. Despite her repeated pledges to master spoken French, her command of that language is still dismal - something she was heavily criticized for during her leadership campaign. Although she says, with uncharacteristic playfulness, "After a glass of wine, I loosen up a little bit. I kept saying I have to get a French boyfriend, but I don't know if Peter would really go for that one."

IT'S MIDDAY, and the convention plenary session is well underway. Stronach collects one of the white boxed lunches prepared for delegates, eats only the apple, and reviews her notes. This will be the most charged moment of the weekend: the party is voting on a resolution to prohibit same-sex marriage in its constitution. "It's a complex moral issue," Stronach said earlier in her cautious way. "I believe in the right to choose same-sex marriage when it comes to civil marriage. I also believe in the rights of churches to choose whether or not they wish to perform same-sex marriages based on their principles. I've always stressed it's important to have a free vote." (MacKay, for the record, supports the resolution. "We avoid it at the dinner table," says Stronach.)

She's been accused by the more conservative wing of the party of not exhibiting respect for the institution of marriage. Craig Chandler, the CEO of an advocacy group called Concerned Christians Canada Inc., has referred to her as "a well-known liberal who has successfully infiltrated the new Conservative Party of Canada." At the convention, she's also the target of a group called the Defend Marriage Coalition, devoted to pressuring Stronach and other "renegade MPs" to change their tune. When her time comes to speak against the resolution, Stronach stands at the microphone, notes in hand, and delivers a brief, methodical plea. "We're here today because we want to form a government," she says. "I believe to do that we need to reach out, broaden the base of support. Vote against this resolution." At one table, young men stand up and applaud. Others in the crowd aggressively boo.

"She's definitely, definitely wrong," says long-time Tory stalwart Elsie Wayne immediately after Stronach's speech. "As far as I'm concerned, when you're talking about the traditional family, that's the foundation of our whole country." Alan McDonnell, a delegate from B.C., agrees. "Any of the MPs that have lined up in favour of gay marriage will never be leader of this party," he says. "Otherwise you'll start Reform Party 2." The resolution is passed with an overwhelming 74 per cent support. The press swarms Stronach to ask how she feels about being booed by fellow party members. She ignores the question.

Rick Mercer is in the room with his crew. He asks Stronach to do a bit for his Monday Report, the faux newscast he hosts for the CBC. "I'm trusting you not to make me look like a complete idiot," she says. Her task is to sing a few lines from the April Wine song Oowatanite for a fake rock video he's working on. "I have a terrible voice," she pleads, wanting to play along but clearly less than thrilled to be open to ridicule. She examines the lyrics while Mercer sets up the stereo. "I'm not singing, I need a straight-shootin' woman to get me through the night, " she jokes. (Later, Mercer will insert footage of MacKay singing this line.) The music starts; Stronach sings in a thin, nervous voice - Oowatanite, everything'll be alright / Come on, come on, love me tonight / And I'll be yours till the sun comes up - while Mercer keeps time with his foot and the cameraman weaves around them to produce fake psychedelic effects. By the time they've done five or six takes, a crowd has gathered and Stronach is entirely flushed. She laughs awkwardly. "This is humiliation," she says.

AT THE HOTEL GODIN, a posh boutique establishment in Montreal, hundreds of Conservatives have wedged themselves into the blue-lit bar for an evening of post policy-debate debauchery. The event is called Cool Blue with the theme, "Jazz, Blues, Rock 'n' Roll: Everything Cool and Blue" - an attempt to prove Conservatives know how to party. Waitresses squeeze through the crowd carrying silver trays of the signature drink of the night: "Cool-Aid," a fruity martini with a plastic ice cube that makes the liquid glow blue. In an adjoining candlelit room, tables are lined with platters of appetizers and expensive bottles of Norwegian artesian water. Donations - in exchange for a "Cool Blue" commemorative bracelet - are being collected to benefit Conservative youth.

On stage, Tom Cochrane is at the microphone, performing an acoustic version of Life is a Highway, while B-List celebrities like musician Jarvis Church, sprinter Donovan Bailey, hockey's Tie Domi and Kelly Perdew, winner of The Apprentice, circulate. At the centre of it all, receiving admiring guests, posing for pictures and signing autographs, is Stronach, who co-organized the event and personally picked up the tab, which some reports have put at $86,000. (She also booked herself a suite for the evening at the hotel, where such accommodation costs from $345 to $1003.) "I think everyone's having a good time," she yells above the crowd.

On Sunday morning, Stronach flies out of Montreal - probably the only MP to leave the convention on a privately chartered plane. "Belinda's party" wound up being the talk of the convention. "Just the sheer energy was fantastic," says MacKay. "I think some people wouldn't expect that from a staid Conservative party. I think Belinda deserves a lot of credit. She's brought a lot of excitement to politics, and that's one of the many things I respect and love about her."

For other party members, the event highlighted their concerns over Stronach's approach to politics. "She's spending a lot of money and having a good time," says B.C.'s McDonnell, who refused to attend. "But you can't buy the leadership. You can spend a lot of money trying - but you can't buy people's hearts and minds." In a way, says one MP off the record, she widens the chasm that still exists between the former Alliance and the old Tories. "The Alliance was largely a party of middle-class people, whereas the old establishment Tories were much more comfortable with wealth, status and the old network," he says. "Throwing the party was a good thing and people really enjoyed it, but to the Westerner who watches his pennies carefully, I just don't see how a Western MP could get away with that." But should that really matter? The Conservatives have no shortage of ideologues and policy wonks in their ranks. Now, with Stronach, they may have something just as valuable - a Conservative MP with pockets not only deep but in the very best taste.

LIANNE GEORGE

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES: Former politicians on Magna's board of directors have boosted Belinda Stronach's political career. But for sheer depth, you can't beat Power Corp.

IF THERE'S ONE THING Belinda Stronach must have learned in her time in the corporate world, it's the importance of having friends in high places. Magna International Inc., the auto parts company founded and controlled by her father, Frank Stronach, has always made it a habit to fill its board of directors and executive ranks with well-connected former politicians, both Liberal and Conservative.

Magna's board currently includes former Ontario Tory premier Mike Harris, and Ed Lumley, who served as minister of industry in Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government of the early 1980s. Another former Liberal cabinet minister, Doug Young, and Liberal Dennis Mills, who served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of industry, are directors of another of Stronach's companies, MI Developments. Last year, Brian Tobin, the flamboyant former federal fisheries minister and ex-premier of Newfoundland, had a brief stint as chief executive officer of MI. Tobin resigned after six months from Stronach's corporate empire - taking with him a package of some $2.3 million - around the time that long-serving board member and former Tory Ontario premier Bill Davis also stepped down.

It's not just Canadian politicians who have found their way into the Stronach family business. Franz Vranitzky was chancellor of Austria from 1986 to 1997, when he joined Magna's board. This year, Stronach named former U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci to an executive position with Magna Entertainment. Magna also has a global advisory board, which features such luminaries as former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Mexico's past president Ernesto Zedillo.

But even this long list of contacts can't outdo the myriad political connections boasted by Power Corp. The board of Paul Desmarais' Montreal-based holding company includes Don Mazankowski, Mulroney's former deputy prime minister, John Rae, brother of one-term Ontario premier Bob Rae, and Senator Michael Pitfield, clerk of the privy council under Trudeau in the 1970s and '80s.

And the current board doesn't begin to describe the depth of Power Corp.'s political ties. Alumni include Daniel Johnson, who worked his way up to vice-president at Power before moving into politics and becoming Quebec premier in 1994. Prime Minister Paul Martin was also an executive under Desmarais until he bought Canada Steamship Lines from Power Corp. in 1981. Jean Chrétien sat on the board of a Power subsidiary in the late 1980s, during his hiatus from politics. Like Magna, Power also has a global advisory committee that has included such stars as Trudeau, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and Paul Volker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Such relationships are not a corporate cure-all, however. That point was made clear by the troubles at Conrad Black's Hollinger International, whose unparalleled network of board members and advisers included Henry Kissinger, former Illinois governor James Thompson, and Britain's legendary former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Nevertheless, few Canadians could rival the connections Belinda Stronach made in her brief tenure as head of Magna. By the time she got involved in the talks to merge the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, she was already well-prepared to cross the increasingly fuzzy line between politics and business. With backers like Mulroney, Davis and Harris already in her corner, her career change was more of a hop than a leap.

Maclean's April 18, 2005