Belinda’s bolt : beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

May 18th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Just what you think about former Conservative MP Belinda Stronach’s explosive decision to join Paul Martin’s Liberal cabinet depends on which side you are on. In the razor-thin confidence motion on Thursday, May 19, it means one more vote for the Liberals and the New Democrats, and one less for the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper has understandably claimed that there were “no grand principles” involved in what CBC Newsworld quickly labelled “Belinda’s Bolt” (or was it “Belinda Bolts”?) Belinda had come to see that she could never be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. So she struck the best deal she could with the Liberals, who are currently in a desperate fix.

A nice lady … or not?

More or less objectively, there probably is something to this partisan assessment. Belinda Stronach is the daughter of the ambitious industrialist Frank Stronach. She was briefly a kind of princess CEO of the firm her immigrant father literally built from nothing, now known as Magna International and “one of the world’s biggest automotive parts makers.”

She apparently has such friends as Bill Clinton in the USA, the former Liberal Premier of Ontario, David Peterson (who was directly involved in her decision to join the federal Liberals), and assorted past associates of the former Conservative Premier of Ontario, William Davis. She does seem to be a born media darling with real public charm – who is also quite ambitious and probably not all that nice, when you get to the bottom line.

She did not inform the president of her local Conservative riding association about her surprising decision before she went on television with the prime minister Tuesday morning. Even Conservative leader Stephen Harper first heard about Belinda’s Bolt from his deputy leader Peter MacKay. Mr MacKay is another close friend of Ms. Stronach’s – and sometime partner in romance as well. He has, on Mr. Harper’s report to the cameras, taken his friend’s political betrayal “pretty hard, as you can imagine.”

A triumph of photogenic principles?

On the other side of the fence they are just saying tell me something I don’t know. The Liberal Party of Canada has been the country’s premier party of opportunism since the middle of the 19th century – as many of its present loyal adherents will proudly confess. No one ever accused Mackenzie King of being nice, to say nothing of Pierre Trudeau. Even if you are a follower of Tommy Douglas or David Lewis instead, Belinda Stronach has at least done what is right for her country right now, and that it is what counts.

Ms. Stronach also gave a pretty plausible account of her actions at her televised press conference with Prime Minister Martin. She still believes in the democratic need for a viable alternative to the federal Liberals in Canada. She still believes that many of her much-respected colleagues in the new Conservative Party of Canada are on their way to creating just that for the somewhat more distant future. But at this exact moment in the history of her country she has finally come to believe that the present leadership of her former party (to say nothing of its allies in the Bloc Quebecois) does not yet fully grasp how “big and complex” a place Canada is. And she just feels she can no longer follow their banner.

Whether this is actually true or not, it is a principled enough argument in the current circumstances of  Canadian federal politics As assorted polls have made pretty clear, there are at least more than a few voters out there who share Belinda Stronach’s latest assessment of the present Conservative leadership – especially in her Southern Ontario riding of Newmarket-Aurora, in the inner exurbs of the Greater Toronto Area. She can reasonably claim to have been listening to her local people too.

And, say what you like, she is highly photogenic. If you still don’t get this, just quickly scan the six pages of Google images of her on the Net today. She is not exactly Cameron Diaz, or Beyonce Knowles. But among the politicians in Canada she looks pretty good. It is not surprising that she is some kind of friend of Bill Clinton’s, and has even had dinner with him recently (which caused its own small scandal of some sort in a US tabloid).

Will she have followers?

The enormous surprise of it all has inevitably led to speculation about whether there will be other Conservative MPs joining the Liberals before the now very imminent vote in Parliament on Thursday, May 19. And there do seem some traces of old Ontario Progressive Conservative backroom wizardry in the rather deft way that Ms. Stronach has so far managed her big surprise.

Some also report that Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams has been very aggressively urging his province’s two Conservative federal MPs to support the Martin government’s budget legislation, to lock in its accompanying Atlantic Accord on provincial oil revenues. It does seem that, like Belinda Stronach, you really would have to bolt from the federal Conservative Party altogether to vote with the Liberal government at this juncture. And whether even the hard-hitting Danny Williams can persuade anyone to go quite this far is uncertain at best. But, no doubt, who can safely say now just what might happen on Thursday, May 19?

Democratic Renewal … and Belinda’s Bounce

Meanwhile, the exact job description that Paul Martin has given Ms. Stronach in his cabinet is a bit intriguing in its own right. She is to be “Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal.” The prime minister has “also asked Ms. Stronach to help guide the implementation of the recommendations that flow from the final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities” (i.e. the Gomery inquiry). If she does actually get a chance to serve past Thursday, it will be interesting to see what she makes of all that.

For the moment, the television news is saying that Belinda’s Bolt helped pushed the Canadian dollar up rather nicely in the global marketplace on Tuesday, May 17. (Could that possibly mean that the international financial markets like the Liberals better too? Or is it just that anything done by a photogenic princess of a large corporation called Magna International is worth a respectful nod?) CTV Newsnet is calling this “Belinda’s Bounce.”

Which side are you on, boys … and girls?

Stephen Harper has also managed to show that while he may be down a bit for one day, he is far from out tomorrow. A television reporter asked him what he thought about Ms. Stronach’s comment that the Conservative leader did not fully grasp how complex Canada was. And Mr. Harper just cleverly enough said he had “never noticed that complexity was one of Belinda’s strong points.”

More or less objectively again, that is no doubt a principled enough argument as well – and arguably enough about both Belinda Stronach and the Liberals she has just joined. In the end it just does all seem to come down to whose principles you like best, or dislike least, or whatever it is. Who knows? Maybe in Canada today that is actually progress too.

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