Cover

THE WHOLE STORY

BELINDA AND PETER

May 30 2005
Cover

THE WHOLE STORY

BELINDA AND PETER

May 30 2005

THE WHOLE STORY

BELINDA AND PETER

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES. On Monday, May 16, Peter MacKay was on top of his game. The deputy Tory leader was poised for a long-awaited chance to topple the Liberals alongside his girlfriend and fellow caucus member Belinda Stronach. By Tuesday, he was Henry David Thoreau, retreating to Walden—or, in this case, his family’s sprawling farm in Lorne, N.S.—to contemplate his colossal reversal of fortune. He appeared,

having lost both a vote and the girl, on the front pages of newspapers in orange rubber boots, petting his dog (one of the few things in life you can count on) and squinting stolidly into the horizon. “My head’s clear,” he told the television crew camped on his lawn, but “my heart’s a little banged up.” It was an iconic moment, rebroadcast over

and over on Canadian TV and eliciting an outpouring of sympathy from MacKay’s colleagues, friends and romance-starved viewers. They bled for him, for having been so publicly and unceremoniously dumped. And they admired his will to soldier on and channel his heartbreak into redoubling his devotion to the party. For others, however,

the interview was almost unwatchable, seemingly a calculated move designed to frame him as a hapless victim and Stronach as the worst kind of traitor. But there was a third, less prevalent interpretation: MacKay as a regular guy who tripped up publicly and, hell, is finding it all a little embarrassing.

After all, he’s had his own history of trampling hearts. He was involved in a longer relationship with Lisa Merrithew—a Maritime public relations professional and daughter of former veterans affairs minister Gerry Merrithew—when he was rumoured to have become entangled with Stronach. Before that, even as he took up with Merrithew, he was still living with a previous long-term girlfriend, a nurse named Maribeth Ryan, in

LIANNE GEORGE reports on a relationship that may have been doomed from the start

‘I THINK he was more upset about his public humiliation than his relationship ending,’ says a former girlfriend

Ottawa. (At the time, says one insider, it was well known on the Hill that MacKay had “a brunette in Ottawa and a blond in Halifax.”) In light of last week’s fiasco, Ryan, now happily married with two children, puts it this way: “You know, I do feel badly for Peter. But quite frankly, as someone who knows him well, I think he was more upset about his public humiliation than his relationship ending.”

THE VERY PUBLIC MacKay-Stronach implosion marked the end of what had been,

for all intents and purposes, a romance forged in the public eye as well. Despite the couple’s best efforts to play it down, their relationship had a significant role in shaping the image of the new Tories as a youthful, stylish and savvy bunch. They were crowned the prom king and queen of Conservative politics.

Perhaps the first sign of their ultimate incompatibility was a semantic one. Last January, when MacKay first publicly proclaimed his affection for Stronach, then the rookie MP for Ontario’s Newmarket-Aurora riding, there was something in his use of the word “smitten” that seemed to forecast a bad ending. Who, after all, becomes smitten? Cherubic ’50s teen idols, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, but surely not Stronach, a twicedivorced heiress and former CEO of a multibillion-dollar auto parts conglomerate. When asked for her take on the relationship, the notoriously aloof Stronach could muster nothing more zealous than, “of late we’ve started dating.”

That was four months ago. Last week, with less than three days to go before the crucial budget vote to determine the fate of Paul Martin’s government, Stronach blindsided her party—and MacKay—by crossing the floor as a newly minted Liberal cabinet minister, the result of a covert, llth-hour deal with the PM. On Parliament Hill, she was accused of “whoring” and “prostituting” herself—as though defecting to Martin’s camp was tantamount to political and, implicitly, personal cuckoldry. Back on the farm, MacKay entrenched the personal into the political dialogue by allowing cameras to film him in the field, swarmed by blackflies as he planted potatoes—a jilted lover seeking solace in nature. “I have a lot of affection for her family, her kids in particular,” he said morosely. “She did what she felt she had to do, and I wish her happiness.”

Stronach maintained her silence on the subject—with the exception of one rather chilly comment. “I have a great deal of respect for Peter MacKay and the contribution he’s

made to the growth of the Conservative party,” she said, as though speaking of a remote school chum.

ON THE SURFACE, the fallout from the Stronach-MacKay relationship is a simple case of two people having defied an age-old principle: “Don’t dip the pen in the company ink.” But there’s more to it than that. We are, for better or worse, in an age of “reality politics,” as Liberal Senator Jim Munson

puts it. “Pierre Elliott Trudeau said the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” he says, “Well, guess what? The state has entered the bedrooms of the nation right now. We’re all sitting on the sidelines, and like any inquisitive Canadian we’re asking, ‘How do they feel? How would we feel?’ ” The saga of Peter and Belinda began murkily sometime in the fall of 2004. Stronach, now 39, was coming off a 2003 divorce from her second husband, Johann Olav Koss, a Norwegian Olympic gold medallist in speed skating. She’d met her first husband, Donald Walker—with whom she shares parenting duties for their two children—while climbing the ranks of her father Frank Stronach’s corporation (they divorced in 1995; Walker is currently co-CEO at Magna). She became CEO in 2001 and quickly became the focus of international media attention as much for her looks and her glitzy fashion sense as for her business accomplishments. She was frequently written up in the pages of the tabloids as she hobnobbed with the likes of Bill Clinton and Jack Nicholson.

Then, in January 2004, Stronach relinquished her Magna post to run for the leadership of the newly united Conservative party, a merger she helped to negotiate along with Stephen Harper and MacKay. Despite support from Brian Mulroney and other Tory stalwarts, she lost that bid in March 2004, but went on to campaign for a seat in her home riding. She won, albeit by a tiny margin, and landed in Ottawa—in a

Clockwise from top, far left: the couple at the Tory convention in March; Stronach with Clinton in 2001; with father Frank during the leadership campaign; Stronach’s first husband, Walker; with second husband, Koss; MacKay with then-girlfriend Merrithew in 2003

suite at the Chateau Laurier—last summer.

MacKay is quite a different story—by all accounts a hearty and traditional East Coast boy. Good-looking, affable and always wellpressed, the 39-year-old bachelor and rugby enthusiast from rural Nova Scotia is the son of Elmer MacKay, a long-time Tory cabinet minister and close friend of Mulroney. MacKay grew up in the Annapolis Valley, where he was raised by his mother, Macha Delap. He trained as a lawyer, before winning a seat in Parliament for Pictou-AntigonishGuysborough in 1997. In May 2003, at the age of 37, he became the leader of the Progressive Conservative party. He is a reputed favourite among the party’s female staffers— the Hill Times has voted him sexiest MP for seven years running. But during the 2003 Tory leadership campaign, it was thengirlfriend Merrithew who played the role of political wife, holding his hand and gazing at him admiringly for the cameras.

Stronach and MacKay had known each other for some time. She’d done fundraising for him in the past, but they really became acquainted during the Tory-Alliance merger negotiations. They professed a mutual interest in uniting the party, in pushing a moderate conservative agenda, and in providing a strong, credible alternative to the Liberals. But in Ottawa, some observers began suspecting there was more to it than that, although Stronach and MacKay kept their burgeoning relationship under wraps until his “smitten” com-

ment in January. Then the scrutiny began.

As it turned out, being Canada’s hottest political couple and its dullest were not mutually exclusive. Their public interactions were chaste and purely professional. There were sightings at charity functions, and at the East Coast Music Awards in February. They were seen quaffing beer together at a Nova Scotia pub, and working out in a gym at a strip mall. “We’re both very conscious of when you’re at work, you’re at work,” Stronach said at one point, “and we’re trying to keep the two separate as best as possible.”

The Conservative convention in late March marked their first high-profile political appearance as a couple. MacKay gushed about the $86,000 “Cool Blue” party Stronach hosted at a posh Montreal hotel, and about the over-the-top reaction she generated from delegates. “She’s got that movie star quality,” he said. On weekends, when Stronach would commute from Ottawa to her home riding to spend time with her children, MacKay would often accompany her. “Certainly what I saw in the riding seemed to be a very genuine relationship,” says Ontario MPP Julia Munro, who attended many of the same functions. “I saw them at a local event about three or four weeks ago. He was there for the weekend and he was involved, going to things with her children, soccer games and things like that.”

MacKay’s colleagues say he was very devoted, and that he’d hoped it would be a long-term romance. Edmonton-Strathcona Tory MP Rahim Jaffer recounts how he and others would ask MacKay to join them for a beer. “He’d say, T’d love to go with you guys but I want to spend some time with Belinda—I rarely have a chance to see her,’ ” Jaffer says. “You’d hear that often.” She, on the other hand, was always harder to read, he adds. “At times it seemed like maybe she wasn’t as committed to the relationship because she was always keeping such a busy schedule, but I know they both tried to spend time together.”

At the East Coast Music Awards (above); in the House after the breakup (right); Stronach and fellow former Tory Scott Brison (top, far right); at her first Liberal caucus meeting

Around Ottawa, Stronach’s critics charged that she was using the romance as a political tool—exploiting MacKay’s party connections and experience to jockey for position for another leadership run. There was also concern that the relationship was causing friction between MacKay and Harper, who had previously had an affable working arrangement. “Within the party, it was clear she was manoeuvring,” says one Tory MP who preferred not to be named. “And MacKay appeared to be supporting her.”

Then came the fateful night of May 16. Stronach and MacKay had eaten dinner together at the suite they were sharing at the Chateau Laurier. Afterwards, without revealing her destination, she ducked out for a second dinner—at 24 Sussex Drive with Martin and his advisers. The deal had already been done; now, over veal medallions, chocolate semifreddo and sauvignon blanc, they

discussed the political situation and the cabinet post waiting for her. (In some media reports, that late-night meeting was framed in a light so sinister you could almost hear maniacal laughter over the clinking of crystal.) It was only upon her return after midnight that she told MacKay of her decision to cross the floor. “He spent all night trying to talk her out of it,” said one senior Tory. Stronach later called Harper to tell him the news, but only after MacKay had already informed him. She didn’t even have “the courtesy to call her principal secretary,” said one senior Tory.

On Tuesday afternoon, tired of being holed up in his Parliament Hill office besieged by media, MacKay caught a flight back home to Nova Scotia, at the suggestion of his friends and fellow MPs Gerald Keddy and Loyola Hearn. “An afternoon in Atlantic Canada is better than a week on a shrink’s couch in Ottawa,” says Keddy. The next day, his house surrounded by satellite trucks, MacKay granted the famous potato interview. Better to do it then, he subsequently said, than later in a way that would seem contrived.

And then the resulting deconstruction: who wronged whom and how significantly? Stronach was immediately vilified by the media, the public and her former colleagues in the Conservative caucus, painted as a spoiled, callous, deceitful woman of ambition—a latter-day Jezebel. Harper weighed in as well. “If she has such a high opinion of

Peter MacKay,” he said, “she has an awfully tough way of conveying that to him.” Conservative conspiracy theorists began to surface, pointing out they’d long believed Stronach to be a Liberal plant. In one article, she was even compared to Mata Hari.

It wasn’t long before the barrage of criticism sparked a defensive backlash, particularly among female Liberal MPs who accused the Tories of sexism. Others concurred. “I don’t think you can portray the comments as anything other than coming out of a pretty deep vein of misogyny on the political right,” says Sylvia Bashevkin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. Adds Patrick Gossage, a former Trudeau press secretary: “People are deploring the Victorian sentiments that are surfacing. The notion that you have to stand by your man, be loyal to your man—give me a break.”

As for MacKay, the immediate response was one of commiseration. “I just bled for him,” says CPAC analyst and author William Johnson. “He was so destroyed and he said he couldn’t sleep for two days. Given the closeness of their relationship—and she

‘THE notion that you have to be loyal to your man-give me a break,’ says one political commentator

didn’t tell him. That to me speaks more than any single item in this whole business.” The breakup also helped to rehabilitate MacKay’s reputation within the party. Any questions of his disloyalty to Stephen Harper were allayed. “I think now you’ll see a huge change in the way Peter and Stephen will be able to operate,” says Jaffer.

But how will MacKay’s public vulnerability be viewed in the long term? “It’s very un-Canadian, let’s put it that way,” says Gossage, who now runs the communications firm Media Profile in Toronto. In politics, he notes, there is only one circumstance in which you allow yourself to be emotionally weak in front of the cameras, and that’s in the event of a tragedy, such as visiting a flood-stricken area. “To show emotion about

a failed love affair is just tacky, and I think people see it that way,” Gossage says. “I think the Tories probably saw it as maybe having some impact—they’re dreaming, frankly.” Now, for the two former lovers, it’s back to work. Stronach was warmly welcomed into the Liberal fold at a series of events. Last Thursday, MacKay was back in Ottawa in time for the confidence vote—wearing a striped silk tie that was a recent present from Stronach. “It was just one of those spontaneous gifts,” he said, “just like other spontaneous things that happened.” No doubt. But in the ballad of Belinda and Peter, calculation— not spontaneity—was the sour note. li1]

With John DeMont in Halifax,

John Geddes and Joan Bryden in Ottawa, and Patricia Treble in Toronto