NATIONAL

TRADING PLACES

From rising star to Ottawa Jezebel: Belinda Stronach has slid while former boyfriend Peter MacKay has soared. Their failures and successes speak to the shifts in political mood. But their story also says a lot about how this country deals with political notoriety, particularly when it’s embodied in a woman.

LIANNE GEORGE October 9 2006
NATIONAL

TRADING PLACES

From rising star to Ottawa Jezebel: Belinda Stronach has slid while former boyfriend Peter MacKay has soared. Their failures and successes speak to the shifts in political mood. But their story also says a lot about how this country deals with political notoriety, particularly when it’s embodied in a woman.

LIANNE GEORGE October 9 2006

TRADING PLACES

NATIONAL

From rising star to Ottawa Jezebel: Belinda Stronach has slid while former boyfriend Peter MacKay has soared. Their failures and successes speak to the shifts in political mood. But their story also says a lot about how this country deals with political notoriety, particularly when it’s embodied in a woman.

LIANNE GEORGE

There was a

moment in May 2005 when it appeared as though Belinda Stronach had managed, with a little help from her friends, to catapult herself over the entire Canadian political landscape, coming down, to considerable fanfare, among the top decision-makers in government. With7 out a shred of real political experience, without ever having held a job she was not appointed to by her father, without even a university degree, Stronach had claimed credit for uniting the right, placed second in the new party’s leadership race after the glitziest campaign in memory, and subsequently assumed the role of star MP for the new Conservatives. Then, a stunning plot twist. On the night of May 16,2005, Stronach dumped her party—along with boyfriend and then deputy party leader Peter MacKay— and took a waltz across the floor to help the minority Liberal government pass its budget and remain in power. Presto chango: instant cabinet minister!

Any pretense of government as pure meritocracy was suddenly, and rather harshly, dispelled. The move was triumphant or sinister, depending on your party colours, but it was exciting. It cast Stronach in the role of saviour to her new Liberal brethren. And it left Peter MacKay swatting flies in a potato patch, tending his wounds, appearing to have been rather outsmarted.

But that was then, before Justice John Gomery’s first report underscored the full extent of the sponsorship scandal that November, and a disgusted, exasperated Canadian electorate pushed Martin’s Liberals out

of office in January 2006. Suddenly, Stronach was just another passenger on a sinking ship. Peter MacKay’s stock shot up. He was appointed foreign affairs minister at a moment when Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was poised to become the dominant worry of the day, and questions about Ottawa’s relationship with Washington on security would demand constant tending. In midSeptember, MacKay, 41, hosted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a whirlwind, Tim Hortons-fuelled lovefest in Nova Scotia that landed his mug, smitten, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report and the front page of the New York Times.

No longer a cabinet minister, Stronach, who is now 40, found herself a newcomer in suspicious Liberal ranks, languishing on the opposition benches in a thoroughly demoralized party. And just when she was beginning to earn recognition within the party for her work as chair of the Liberal women’s caucus, Stronach made headlines last week as the “other woman” in a scathing divorce application filed by the wife of newly retired NHL player Tie Domi. How in the name of Magna did we get here?

THE NAKED, OR PERHAPS DESIGNER-CLAD, AMBITION THAT

STRONACH DISPLAYED IN CROSSING THE FLOOR

LEFT MANY LIBERALS COLD

Stronach and MacKay’s soap-operatic split guarantees that their political fortunes will forever be wound together in “Who came out on top?” calculations. At the moment, the math seems pretty rudimentary. But the successes and failures of these two people speak to the shifts in the Canadian political mood—and the question of whether MacKay continues to prosper or, more immediately, whether Stronach can recover, will reveal a lot about how this country deals with polit-

ical notoriety, particularly when it’s embodied in the form of a woman.

Stronach’s slide began almost as soon as she crossed the floor. As one may have expected, her former Tory colleagues felt betrayed. “I was furious. I thought it was a disgraceful act,” says Rod Love, who had been the chairman of Stronach’s Conservative leadership campaign in Alberta. “I thought it was a terrible thing to do to the party and I think it wrecked her career. She’s got herself a label now as an opportunist, and you don’t shake this kind of stuff in politics. Memories are very, very long in this game.”

Her glamour, youth and progressive ideas— which had proven so valuable to a Conservative party desperate to look “hip” to urban Canadians—were significantly less of an asset to the Liberals. Not only did her new colleagues not need help seeming, well, liberal, but in the gloomy wake of the Gomery report, they certainly weren’t looking to push the idea that they enjoyed the good life. The naked, or perhaps designer-clad, ambition Stronach displayed in crossing the floor left many Liberals cold, and lingering resentments were inevitable.

But one place the Liberals did need help was in

luring back women swing voters from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois. By some accounts, Stronach has been remarkably successful in forging new bonds with this vital demographic. In fact, rarely has a politician used her gifts as a hostess more assiduously. A dinner for female Liberal MPs last spring at her swank Ottawa condo apparently launched her charm offensive. In August, Stronach invited the women’s caucus to her hometown, Aurora, for a summer retreat. She has grown close to MPs Ruby Dhalla and Judy Sgro. She is spearheading her own initiatives, including work on a policy framework wince-inducingly called the Pink Book.

“She’s not just a spoiled little brat,” says former Liberal Ontario premier David Peterson, who facilitated Stronach’s defection to the party. “She’s bright. People like her. Women like her. Most women don’t like other goodlooking younger women who are rich.” Which is why an adultery scandal, in which Stronach is painted as a cold-hearted home-

wrecker, comes at a particularly inconvenient time. To boot, the husband in question isn’t just any guy, but a former NHL pugilist known for chanting: “You touch me / You go me / My name is / Tie Domi.” Last week, Domi’s wife of 13 years, Leanne, filed a damning divorce application in an Ontario court. On the same day, Stronach’s lawyer also received a copy of the papers, as is the rule if your client’s been named. Identified as the single greatest cause for the marital collapse is an alleged affair Domi, 36, has been having with Stronach since the summer of 2005. The allegations, none of which have been proven, read something like this: Stronach “insinuated herself” into the couple’s life when they ran into each other at a Formula One race in Montreal. Stronach ignored all of the women who were present and spent the entire evening in “deep” conversation with Domi. In January 2006, Leanne Domi claims, Tie Domi became involved in Stronach’s election campaign and began spending excessive amounts of time with her, and away from his own three young children, telling his wife it was for “business reasons.”

Rumours of the relationship began to spread. In July 2006, a friend of Mrs.

Domi’s told her that she had seen Domi walking down

AN ADULTERY SCANDAL, IN WHICH STRONACH

IS PAINTED AS A COLD-HEARTED HOMEWRECKER, HAS COME

AT A PARTICULARLY INCONVENIENT TIME

Madison Avenue in Manhattan, holding hands with Stronach and carrying her packages—as though he were her “shopping sherpa.” Domi had allegedly told his wife he’d been at a charity golf event in the Maritimes. Finally, his wife claims, Domi skipped out on their ll-yearold son’s hockey tournament because of an “important charity commitment,” when in fact he’d been lunching with Stronach, her 14year-old son, and Brad Pitt, in town for the Toronto International Film Festival. Later that night, the alleged lovers enjoyed a “glamorous evening at the Carlu,” where their “budding romance” was captured on CTV news. “The children were sad and traumatized,” Leanne Domi says. She now believes that Domi disconnected the family’s home security camera so that he and Stronach could engage in poolside “trysts” while Leanne Domi and the children were out of town. It was not the

first affair Domi had engaged in, she charges. In the past, he had a dalliance with D-list actress Tia Carrere of Wayne’s World. Leanne Domi says she was threatened by her husband to keep Stronach’s name out of the divorce proceedings. “He knows that Belinda and her father will stop at nothing to make sure her name is cleared,” she says. On Tuesday morning—less than an hour before a scheduled court date—the Domis reached an interim settlement that should keep both sides happy until a judge sorts out the final details of their divorce. For Stronach, however, the damage has been done and the question remains, how will this affect the political career of one of Ottawa’s true female powerbrokers?

LESS THAN TWO YEARS AGO, Peter MacKay’s good standing within his party hovered at a low point. He had developed a reputation as an unprincipled political operator. As the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, he had broken a series of promises to his supporters—most notably, his promise not to merge with the Canadian Alliance— and had therefore blown any shot he may have had at leading the newly formed party. Dating Stronach only added to the suspicion within the party that he was flaky, if not untrustworthy. Suddenly, he is back on the international stage in grand

style. The Stronach breakup did wonders for his reputation in the eyes of many Tories. The semi-official line from the MacKay and Stephen Harper camps is that their old rivalry was largely put aside when Stronach switched teams. Apparently, there is nothing like the betrayal of a woman to ignite a spark of understanding between men. For some time, Harper is said to have been suspicious about the couple’s relationship, and possible designs on the party leadership. Now they were no longer a concern. According to Bob Plamondon, the author of Full Circle: Death and Resurrrection in Canadian Conservative Politics, the Stronach-MacKay breakup mended their fractured relationship.

Then came the cabinet posting. And then Condoleezza Rice’s leisurely visit to MacKay’s home turf. Rice was clearly charmed by “Peter,” as she so cozily referred to him at their dual press conference. The meeting generated a significant amount of derisive comedy on late-night television—a surefire sign of having arrived. Canadian comedian Norm MacDonald happened to be a guest on The Daily Show the night Jon Stewart did his Rice-MacKay bit, alluding to a hot and heavy romance between the pair. “I know that Peter MacKay character,” MacDonald said. “If I was Condoleezza Rice, I wouldn’t be too flattered because that guy will f— anything.” Later that same night, Stephen Colbert re-enacted the Condi-Peter love exchange as a “nightgown novel.” (In fact, according to an article in last week’s The Hill Times, MacKay is dating Jana Juginovic, the director of news and programming for CTV Newsnet, whom he recently brought to the wedding of one of his Tory friends in Ottawa.)

It would be easy to conclude that MacKay is the fastest-rising star in Ottawa, but insiders say the real story is a little more nuanced. MacKay’s clout in Harper’s cabinet is open to question. Some Tories who have watched Harper and MacKay behind closed doors doubt that the two men have genuinely grown closer. “To even call it a relationship is a stretch,” said one. Another Conservative insider said MacKay—who brings sound bred-in-the-bone partisan instincts to the cabinet table, but not necessarily well-articulated strategic ideas—isn’t the sort of politician Harper naturally trusts.

As well, the foreign affairs portfolio can be a mixed blessing for an ambitious politician. It has sometimes been viewed by past prime ministers as a gilded cage suitable for current or potential rivals—prestigious enough that getting the job can’t be viewed as a slight, but not as central to the day-to-day business of government as, say, finance or justice. Likewise, critics say the Rice photo-ops might have raised MacKay’s profile, but they also

DATING STRONACH ONLY ADDED TO THE SUSPICION WITHIN THE PARTY THAT MACKAY WAS FlAKY, IF NOT UNTRUSTWORTHY

provided opposition parties with a treasure trove of images to exploit in the next election, to illustrate their inevitable claims that the Tories are too close to the Bush Republicans—a theme that resonates powerfully with voters in key electoral battlegrounds like Quebec and Vancouver, as well as with old-school Progressive Conservatives. Nevertheless, foreign affairs has become an unexpectedly crucial file in Ottawa, and the Tory government has been aggressive in staking new ground—strongly backing Israel against Hezbollah this summer, and extending Canada’s mission in Afghanistan by another two years. MacKay’s profile, it seems, is only getting bigger.

IT’S TEMPTING to dismiss continued interest in the botched Stronach-MacKay romance as nothing but voyeurism—although that is undeniably one of its happy by-products. After all,

Parliament Hill had never been sexier. But their very public breakup served as a political tipping point. In fact, some go so far as to say that the fallout of that night in May 2005 virtually delivered the next federal election to Stephen Harper’s

Conservatives on a Lalique platter. It was a galvanizing incident that not only served to mend fences between Harper and MacKay, at least temporarily, but it also contributed to the sense among fence-sitters that Paul Martin was capable of stooping to sleazy deals and that Stronach was a pure opportunist who cuckolded not only MacKay, but the entire Conservative party. Most importantly, it granted the Conservative party the summer to marshall its forces, get organized and design an ultra-streamlined campaign—and it bought the Liberals just enough rope to prop-

erly hang themselves in the January election.

Stronach’s decision to dump the Conservatives, says Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, “ended up unwittingly being the most helpful thing that anybody could have done.” The Conservatives were not ready to wage an election in the spring of2005, he says. “The extra months really allowed the shadow cabinet, the leader’s office, the campaign planners, the fundraisers and others, to make immense progress. And while you can never predict how an election forced that way might have turned out, the extra time worked very, very constructively for the Conservatives.”

David Peterson was like “a fly on the wall” during the period of Stronach’s de-

fection. “Was it in the Liberals’ interest to be saved then?” he asks in hindsight, “Would it have been better had they gone to the people? I know people who think, Jesus, the Liberals would’ve had a better chance at beating the Conservatives then. So was it really helpful in keeping them alive? I don’t know the answer to that. You can have conjecture on that for the rest of your life.”

In fact, how you read the political fallout of that event will probably be deeply informed by how you feel about Stronach the person. She has a knack for placing herself in the heart of the action. But is she a political catalyst to be respected for sticking to her prin-

ciples in the face of intense criticism? Or is she a disruptive force—entitled, blithely adventurous, and utterly lacking the capacity to comprehend the consequences of her action? Is she a spoiled rich girl turned on by power, or a true public servant who gave up a life of luxury and private jets for the drudgery of being an MP? Ultimately, Belinda remains in the eye of the beholder.

When National Post columnist Don Martin set out to write a biography on Stronach— Belinda: The Political and Private Life of Belinda Stronach—he says people wondered how he would sustain an entire book on her. But in his book, which does at moments read like a love letter to his subject, Martin paints Stronach as being far smarter than she gets credit for. She is definitely a product of her upbringing, he seems to conclude, but all things considered, she is a remarkably kind, down-to-earth, fun-loving, and, yes, intelligent person. (At least in person. Martin describes her public speaking style as though her ideas have been implanted into her brain via microchip.) He uses a series of semi-convincing anecdotes to illustrate these qualities. She’s friends with Gene Simmons of Kiss, for instance. She loves to dance and have a few drinks. When she took a trip to Ethiopia at the invitation of famous Columbia University economist and anti-poverty activist Jeffrey Sachs, she was perfectly satisfied with the filthy accomodations. Also, she has a quick, sharp sense of humour. (Once, when Don Martin asked Stronach whether or not she’d ever had cosmetic surgery, she snapped back: “Have you ever had a rectal exam?”) It’s unfortunate that she has not managed to infuse her public persona with the same sort of common touch.

The looming question, of course, is how much of a liability this new scandal will be for the Liberal party. Pulling out of the leadership race certainly seems to have been a good decision. But in the long term, will voters judge Stronach harshly for finding herself embroiled in a marriage-wrecking scenario? Anyone who doubts that the personal often

THE BEAUTYOFA PUBLIC FALL IS THE PROMISE OF A GRAND COMEBACK

drives the political need only consider the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. In Canada, as a rule, voters tend to be willing to overlook quite a bit in the way of personal foibles. “I worked for 20 years for a guy and everyone was amazed that nothing stuck to him, whether it was divorce or his well-publicized drinking,” says Rod Love, who until recently served as an adviser to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. “With Klein, it’s what you see is what you get. He said, ‘Look, I am what I am. If you like it, vote for me. If you don’t, don’t.’ ” There has never been another case of a politican being named in a divorce proceeding as Stronach was, says Allan Levine, author of Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media. “My own view on this is that we live in fairly liberal times on the issue of sex, even with a married person. I would be surpised if a majority of voters in Ms. Stronach’s riding held her personal life against her.”

But as Plamondon writes in Full Circle, “the political apprenticeship of Belinda Stronach has no precedent.” She is, particularly from a feminist perspective, a problematic figure. She doesn’t conform to many people’s tidy sense of what a female public figure should be—attractive, but not sexy. Smart, but not bullish. Progressive, but with a level of modesty becoming of a mother of two. “Women always get different treatment,” says Love. “A man has an affair and confess-

TORIES WHO'VE WATCHED HARPER AND MACKAY DOUBT

THE TWO MEN HAVE GROWN CLOSER

es and moves on and marries his mistress, and it's kind of

like, yeah whatever. Women tend to get more scrutiny, whether it’s their personal life or their clothes or their background. It’s a fact and she’s going to have to learn to live with it. Can’t change the rules now.”

There will be those who argue that Stronach’s alleged entanglement with a married man will ruin her chances of ever leading the Liberals. There will be others who will say that any anti-Stronach reaction is squarely rooted in sexism and double standards. (Stronach herself told Parliament Hill reporters on Tuesday that media coverage of her involvement in the Tie Domi divorce filing has been invasive and imbalanced. “It’s unfortunate for other women in this country who want to seek political office and to make a contribution,” she said.) Nothing has been proven in court. And even if it is, her supporters will argue, it’s private business. Private business, however, or at least some fantasy notion of it, is the whole point of Belinda Stronach. Her appeal as a politician to date has stemmed not from her policies, or her powerful public orations, but rather from the public’s interest in her as a person. We are interested in Stronach for many of the same reasons we are interested in Hollywood celebrities. She is rich. She jet-sets and hosts lavish parties. She’s an heiress and she’s blond. But the crucial difference is that most celebrities—with a few notably disastrous exceptions—don’t find themselves in a position to influence public policy.

The beauty of a public fall is that it contains the promise of a grand comeback. Stronach’s supporters, and she has many, say she has more than proven her commitment to public life. She is working hard in opposition, building up her credibility within the party. “Sometimes people will talk to me and Belinda about, you know, aren’t you disappointed about how things turned out?” says Mark Entwistle, confidant and former adviser to Stronach. “They’ll say, ‘You were only a cabinet minister for a few months and then the Liberals lost power and you must feel kind of embittered.’ And it’s not like that at all. That kind of optic obviously doesn’t reflect an understanding of who Belinda is and how her mind works. That was a very difficult decision for her to make. I lived through it with her. She made it from the core of her being, from her gut. She made it because it was the right thing to do.” And at the end of the day, Peterson says, “she’s still the most popular fundraiser in the bloody party.”

Another surefire sign that she is still a threat is that any talk of her is bound to prompt a derisive Tory reaction. Already the heckling volume from the government benches gets cranked up whenever she rises to ask a question in the House. One Liberal aide summed up the Conservatives’ determination to trip her up this way: “She haunts them still.” M

John Geddes