Tory Belinda Stronach Defects to Liberals

BELINDA STRONACH'S job in Paul MARTIN's cabinet will last, barring catastrophe, for the life of this minority Liberal government. Perhaps even longer if the Liberals win re-election. But it took her less than three days to fulfill her function: inflict massive political damage on the Conservative party she had done so much to create, and then stand, just long enough to be counted, on the right side of House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken instead of his left.

Mission accomplished. The rest is gravy for the eminently adaptable young MP for Newmarket-Aurora, Ont. By voting on Thursday with the government she had so recently joined, Stronach allowed the Liberals, New Democrats and two independents to muster the 152 votes they needed on a crucial money bill to match 152 votes from Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and independent David Kilgour. Speaker Milliken voted to keep the debate going, and therefore the government.

If Stronach had kept the Conservative seat she had warmed, less than spectacularly, since last year's election, the bill would have been defeated and Martin's government with it. We would be in an election campaign by now. This is why a roomful of reporters forgot their manners and laughed out loud last Tuesday when the PM told them Stronach's stunning defection had nothing to do with the looming vote.

"We found that on critical questions of both policy and politics, we have much in common," Martin said at that memorable news conference. And indeed, with hindsight the shock of Stronach's appearance at Martin's side has faded - well, a little - and the new surprise is that Ottawa's new spotlight couple took so long to get together. Martin and Stronach really do have much in common: silver-spoon babies, born into the family business, whose boundless ambition was so thoroughly blocked by wily bosses that each, in turn, had to improvise a shocking rule change. Martin left the Liberal cabinet in 2002 so he could lay siege to Jean CHRÉTIEN's job. Stronach left the Conservative party so she could ruin Stephen HARPER's week.

But that's an admittedly cynical read of the week's events - life in Ottawa these days makes cynicism hard to avoid - and it misses an important fact. Judging from the response in public-opinion polls and in an avalanche of person-in-the-street interviews on the television news, Stronach's conversion and Martin's salvation were welcomed by many Canadians as a genuine blessing.

And there is a lesson in there for Harper, a lesson he cannot ignore if he wants to keep his job much longer. The polling firm Ekos Research Associates was measuring Canadians' voting preferences when Stronach made her leap to Liberal heaven. Ekos president Frank Graves found his numbers changed dramatically: by Monday, the day before Stronach's announcement, Ekos had the Liberals at 42 per cent in Ontario, 11 points over the Conservatives. Twenty-four hours later, only one respondent in three hadn't heard about the Stronach bombshell, and the Liberal lead in Ontario had grown by four points.

How to explain that? Ontarians, like that roomful of reporters who laughed at the prime minister, can count. They knew Stronach's party switch had improved the Liberals' chances of surviving and spending the $4.6 billion Martin had compacted with the NDP's Jack LAYTON to spend. Some voters clearly thought this was excellent news.

Ever since April 21, when Martin made his dramatic televised plea for time to let Justice John Gomery report on the sponsorship scandal, the political debate in the Commons has been a noisy, often squalid test of a central question: should this government keep governing or be unceremoniously terminated? It turns out a lot of Canadians want it to keep governing.

There are two obvious reasons for this. First, when Martin asked for time to let Gomery finish his work, he was appealing to the common-sense proposition that decisions are best made with the facts in hand. It's not at all clear that Harper ever understood how much sense that argument made to many voters. Within days of Martin's broadcast, Conservative strategists were breezily dismissing Martin's demand, arguing that "nobody wants to go to the dentist, but sometimes you have to." The metaphor was imprecise. If you're expecting a report from the dental lab next week, you're going to be wary of some quack who wants to drill into your mandibles tomorrow.

The second obvious explanation for Martin's political victory is that Canadians believe a government comes in handy. Harper has been stubbornly reluctant to explain in detail how a Conservative government would govern. That makes him the devil Canadians don't know. Many obviously prefer the Liberal devil they do know, no matter how desperate his political machinations become.

Harper's reluctance to release the Conservative election platform before an election was a subject of heated internal debate. He finally prevailed by arguing that the Liberals would simply steal, implement and take credit for anything attractive in the program. But Conservative MPs who argue that a formal pre-election release of their platform is a crucial step in defining this new and untested party believe Stronach's departure strengthens their hand.

James Moore, one of the brightest young Conservative MPs and a diehard Harper loyalist, made such an argument in a mass email he sent to supporters and constituents within hours of Thursday's vote. "It is now up to Conservatives to step forward and make the case that we have the superior ideas and leadership for Canada," he wrote, "and to demonstrate the integrity and ethical standards Canadians deserve and expect from their government."

Easier said than done, of course. Harper is aided in this task by the extraordinary loyalty of his caucus, or at least of the MPs who remain since Stronach packed her bags. Even Ontarians from the Progressive Conservative side of the party, who could be expected to be suspicious of their Alberta Reform boss, swear loyalty to him and praise his caucus management style.

But didn't his cold-fish manner and his inability to handle competition from Stronach, his former leadership rival, cost him her support? Not the way Tory MPs tell it. Harper's shadow cabinet is full of former aspirants to the leadership of the Conservative party or its predecessors - Stockwell Day, Jim Prentice, Brian Pallister - whereas Martin's government benches have been purged clean of anyone who ever dared cross him, including Allan Rock, John Manley and Sheila Copps. In fact, the only former leadership candidates in Martin's government were Conservatives: Stronach and Scott Brison.

Tory sources dismiss reports that Harper viciously castigated Stronach, in a private meeting not long before she defected, as "absolute and utter bullshit." In fact, she took a dressing-down from her fellow Ontario caucus members, annoyed that she voted with them at the May 2 special caucus meeting to bring down the government, then walked out and expressed reservations about the decision to waiting reporters. Two days later, at the regular meeting of the Ontario caucus, sources say she was "severely taken to task" by her colleagues.

Those colleagues remain much more acerbic in their description of Stronach than of Harper. Peter Van Loan is the MP for York-Simcoe, a lawyer and former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. He was asked: does losing Stronach imperil Harper's leadership? "I cannot conceive of how," he said. "I cannot conceive of anybody being unhappy with him." There's "no doubt he's not a party animal," Van Loan said of Harper. "But I'm pretty hard to please on these matters, and I find he has made all the right strategic and tactical decisions."

Daryl Kramp, the MP for Prince Edward-Hastings and a self-described "red Tory," said he "gained a new level of respect for Stephen Harper through the whole process." Same line from Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills: "Stephen's earned the right to fight the next election, whenever that might be."

Leave aside, for the moment, the unintentional hint of menace in Chong's remark: Harper's next election may well be his last if he loses it. The fact is his leadership between here and an autumn or winter election will be uncontested. The silver lining in the Stronach cloud is that the Conservative leader can stop worrying about what's going on behind his back.

That leaves him at leisure to look around and ahead. Viewed one way, the Martin-Stronach victory was a triumph of political cynicism and backroom deal-making taken to breathtaking new heights. Viewed in another, it was a triumph for the simple idea that governments exist to do a job. Harper can do nothing about the deal-making. And it is now more evident than ever that he hasn't done enough to persuade enough Canadians that he's up to the job. Belinda Stronach gave him a few extra months to make that case, if he can. It was an odd gift, but then it was an odd week.

Maclean's May 30, 2005