Peter and Belinda: Two tales of a breakup
What really happened on that fateful night
FROM THE EDITORS | Oct 06, 2006
MacKay and Stronach had been a couple since the 2004 federal election. By mid-May, Canadians will recall, the opposition parties were in a giddy state, poised to topple the Liberal government on a vote of non-confidence. Stronach, a rookie Conservative MP, was unhappy with her role in the party.
According to Martin's account, Harper had made it clear to Stronach that as long as he was leader, she would never have any influence within the party she had helped to build. He "lectured her like a truant child," Martin writes, "accusing her of undermining his leadership before rejecting her pledge of support in front of her peers." That spring, the party had neglected to use her image in an ad campaign that showcased its rising stars. "Also," he writes, "a top Harper adviser held her up to ridicule at a candidates' school the weekend before, using her photo as an example of what not to do to embarrass the party." Stronach didn't agree with Harper's plan to use the vote on the proposed Liberal budget to bring down the government, and she disagreed with a lot of the party's social policies, particularly what she viewed as its outmoded campaign to prevent same-sex marriage. "It seemed so intolerant, so backward, so Neanderthal, she thought," he writes.
To Plamondon, Stronach's dissatisfaction was consistent with the sense of entitlement she had displayed since day one of her political career. He painted her as a princess who was quick to publicly take credit for the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties. In fact, he writes, "according to Denis Jolette, the Tory national director who attended the emissary meetings, Stronach's contribution to vision, content and strategy was virtually nil." If anything, an insider told Plamondon, "her interventions were often a distraction." During the emissary meetings, Stronach is said to have announced -- unbidden -- that she had no intention to run for the party leadership. She then set out to procure the best campaign money could buy, spending $3.95 million out of her own pocket to secure the best resources, strategists and field organizers in the business. When she didn't win the leadership, and when Harper didn't immediately embrace her as one of his top advisers, Stronach stomped her feet and refused to play in his sandbox. She went out of her way to undermine his leadership at every turn, speaking out to the press on issues like gay marriage and abortion and accusing Harper of being completely out of touch with mainstream Canadians. "The real problem, hidden not far below the surface, was leadership," writes Plamondon. "In short, Stephen Harper was leader and she was not."
On this much, everybody agrees: on Thursday, May 12, 2005, Stronach ran into former Liberal premier of Ontario David Peterson at a social event. She described her growing frustrations. They spoke again the next day about her options, including the possibility of her leaving politics altogether. Then Peterson called Paul Martin's chief-of-staff, Tim Murphy, to float the possibility of her switching teams. Murphy, stunned, agreed. He approached the Prime Minister, and a deal was struck. On Tuesday, May 17, Stronach would cross the floor and assume the role of minister for human resources and skills development and minister for democratic renewal. On the evening of May 16, Stronach dined with MacKay at Zoe's at the Château Laurier, the hotel where they had been living. Afterwards she left abruptly for her now famous second dinner of the night, at the Prime Minister's residence, where she formalized her agreement with Martin. Just before midnight, Stronach returned to the hotel, and broke the news to MacKay.
According to Don Martin, Stronach felt "intense guilt" about not informing MacKay of her plans for four days. She reasoned it was for his own good. If she told him, he would be forced, as deputy party leader, to report to Harper, and the result would be an all-around public-relations disaster. She didn't want to put him in a compromising position. And by the way, Martin writes, she was starting to see MacKay as two-faced -- someone who sympathized with her liberal views in private, but ultimately toed the party line. MacKay was furious when he heard the news. "She'd never seen MacKay like this before," he writes. "She'd hoped to maintain a personal relationship despite the severed political connection. Hell, she figured, presidential pal Bill Clinton's campaign manager James Carville had kept his marriage going strong with George Bush campaign strategist Mary Matalin." Stronach recalls arguing that "politics is about fluid ideas, not fixed party lines," Martin writes in his book. "MacKay could not be mollified. He'd yelled, argued, pleaded. If she left the Conservatives, she was leaving him, he'd said. It was a betrayal. A treason. Nay, the end of the Conservatives. Good grief, Stronach recalls thinking. That's a bit much." In any case, MacKay broke things off, and Stronach had no choice but to accept it.
Not so, says Plamondon. Stronach was naive and careless about how her plans might impact other people, he writes: "There was every indication that her decision was not thought out from all sides." In fact, he suggests that it was not her decision exclusively, and that her father, auto-parts magnate Frank Stronach, a former Liberal candidate, was "deeply involved" in the defection. In the early morning hours, an overwhelmed, bleary-eyed Stronach was on her BlackBerry phone with her father. At one point, Plamondon writes, she handed off the device to MacKay, implicitly in a you-two-figure-it-out gesture.
"That account is highly exaggerated," says Mark Entwistle, who was then serving as Stronach's communications adviser. Stronach's relationship with her father, he says, is like many people's relationships with their parents. She respects his judgment and seeks his advice, but ultimately, she keeps her own counsel. "The factual reality is that Peter did speak to Belinda's father quite early that morning," he told Maclean's. "Frankly, I think Peter probably assumed that if she just talked to her dad, Frank would talk sense into her. But it's an exaggeration to think Frank was somehow negotiating this or pushing her. My understanding is that Frank went down the other path, telling Belinda to follow her heart and stay the course.'
By 4:00 a.m., Plamondon writes, Belinda had decided to renege on her deal with the Prime Minister. "Stronach had concluded she had made a mistake," he writes. She called Entwistle "to tell him to call everything off, that she was not going through with it." She then went to meet with Murphy and Peterson to stop the process, but they told her it was too late. "The press release had been drafted and a press conference arranged. . . They had already spoken with Martha Hall Findlay about standing down as the Liberal candidate in Newmarket-Aurora, and there was no turning back." The deal, he says, was "closed."
"That's not true at all," Entwistle told Maclean's. "Belinda called me at 4 a.m. not to tell me to call it off, but to get some kind of moral support. She never said to call it off at all. She was clearly under a great deal of pressure from Peter, without question. Tremendous pressure. She'd made this decision and he was relentlessly after her to reverse it. A person feels very alone with these huge decisions." At 8 a.m., Entwistle showed up at Stronach's suite. She was pale and puffy-eyed from crying. He told her to take a few minutes alone to think it over. It still wasn't too late to back out. When Entwistle came back in the room, writes Martin, she wearily changed a few words in the prepared statement and then handed it back to Entwistle. "Let's do it," she said.
At 10:30 a.m., Prime Minister Martin, accompanied by Stronach, emerged in the press gallery theatre and stunned everyone. "For political junkies," writes Martin, "it had a surreal Where-were-you-when-JFK-was-shot? aura." According to Martin, former PM Brian Mulroney was in his hospital bed, recovering from pancreatitis when he heard. "Bullshit," yelled former Ontario premier Mike Harris, when a client read the news off a BlackBerry in the middle of a meeting. Stronach's Aurora office manager, Steve Hinder, called it his "Twin Towers moment."
That morning, writes Plamondon, "Harper went to MacKay's office to offer his support. Harper's first concern was for MacKay's well-being. It was an encounter that would help the two men understand and appreciate one another." In a press conference later that day, Harper defended MacKay and belittled Stronach. Meanwhile, MacKay had already flown to Nova Scotia to climb into his rubber boots and take out his frustrations on his parents' potato patch. In his account, Plamondon, for the record, glosses over wide-ranging criticisms of the potato patch interview, saying only, "Almost no one was critical of MacKay."
Because of the serious consequences of her decision, the reaction against Stronach was vitriolic. She received death threats and had to station security guards at her children's school. For her part, she refused to comment on her private relationship with MacKay, even though MacKay did. "Stronach watched MacKay's tear-jerker, delivered in a hoarse whisper, with dismay and some disgust," writes Martin. "Why was he making this so public? To her mind, she had been dumped by him, not the other way around." Reaction to MacKay's public display was equally polarized, Entwistle told Maclean's. Many people viewed it as a cheap ploy for sympathy. "I was the press secretary of the prime minister and you don't get a colour photograph on the front page of the Globe and Mail unless it is highly orchestrated. Some people thought, poor Peter, poor Peter. Others were like, grow up, man." According to Martin, the next time Stronach attempted to talk to Mackay was on his 40th birthday in Parliament. She wished him a happy birthday. "MacKay trained his steely blue eyes on the former love of his life," writes Martin. " 'How,' he snarled, 'can you live with yourself?' " In the fall, he continues, MacKay could be counted on to glare, and shake his head when she spoke in Parliament. "They actually moved me in the House because he would stare every day," Stronach told Martin, "and it made all my colleagues feel uncomfortable." Still, it was the right decision for her, made from the heart, says Peterson: "This is her happy home. You know, she was never a right-wing meanie."
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