Skip navigation

Stronach strives to dismiss argument she lacks substance

BRIDGEWATER, N.S.

ty minutes before she's to take the stage of the local Canadian Legion hall, Belinda Stronach informs her political handlers that she wants to throw away her script.

The speech Ms. Stronach is scheduled to deliver focuses on the military -- a theme designed to dispel criticisms that she is little more than a political phenomenon with no substance.

But in a last-minute decision that can cause political campaign managers to lose their hair, the neophyte leadership candidate for the Conservative Party announces that she feels more comfortable making an informal talk.

What follows is a folksy address interspersed with jokes about a newspaper contest aimed at finding her a date. One of the old-timers in the crowd takes the bait, telling the former Magna International executive he'd gladly go out with her.

"We'll talk after," Ms. Stronach says and winks, to great laughter from the gathered audience.

Among the many knocks she has absorbed during her highly scripted campaign has been a criticism that she is little more than a cardboard cutout fronting the ambitions of her backroom campaigners.

But with just over two weeks before voting day, she has emerged from the bubble. Opponent Stephen Harper's decision to campaign quietly over the past week has persuaded many Conservatives that he is sitting on a substantial lead that only he can blow. It means that his competitors, Ms. Stronach and former Ontario cabinet minister Tony Clement, must get themselves noticed.

In Ms. Stronach's case, the new strategy adopted in Atlantic Canada this week has manifested itself in more policy, more media exposure and increased criticisms of the front-running Mr. Harper.

"It really comes down to experience versus electability and winnability," Ms. Stronach said in an interview at the end of a long day of campaigning. "That's what it comes down to."

But if Mr. Harper lacks charisma, then Ms. Stronach is deficient in political experience, and she is here to convince party voters that a vote for her will not lead the party off the electoral cliff.

Supporters such as Bill MacNeil of Antigonish say Ms. Stronach needs to talk more about policy and to become more comfortable in her own skin.

"She has to get a little more confident in what she's saying," Mr. MacNeil said at an event in the central Nova Scotia community of Stellarton. "She's got to address the issues a little more."

In an effort to do that, Ms. Stronach kicked off the week with an outline about how she would rebuild the military.

Under a Stronach government, Ottawa would shell out another $1-billion a year over the next 10 years. She also suggested bringing Canada into a North American security perimeter and rebuilding Canada's reputation as an international peacekeeper.

And after weeks of talking about "baking a greater economic pie," Ms. Stronach now discusses how it should be done. The answer, in part, is to give incentives to employees by having them share in the profits of the corporation.

There is a risk, of course, in opening up to the media and Ms. Stronach has already paid a price. In an interview with The Globe and Mail two weeks ago, the candidate found herself on dangerous ground when she tried, with limited success, to explain how she would improve access to the health system without introducing two-tier health care.

At one point this week, she was also left without words when asked by a reporter why she was calling for a review of Canada's place in the world when Defence Minister David Pratt has already started one.

"We are . . . we are to some degree," she hesitated, before finding her feet and saying too few individual Canadians are being consulted.

But Ms. Stronach said she doesn't buy the notion that Conservatives are taking a massive gamble with her.

"I don't think I'm high-risk actually," she said. "In my former job, I had to recognize as a leader that you have to surround yourself with the best and the brightest people. That's much more important than being a top-down leader."

In her effort to be more visible, Ms. Stronach has also refined her speaking style. No longer, for example, does she finish off an opinion with the word "right?" And she said she's far more comfortable speaking off the cuff if the situation presents itself, as it did in Bridgewater.

Of course, a more open candidate also means more chances to fumble.

In the university town of Wolfville, N.S., home to Acadia University, Ms. Stronach was critical of local Liberal MP Scott Brison, who left the Conservative Party because he didn't like the direction in which it was heading.

"It's unfortunate that Scott Brison did not stay, did not roll up his sleeves if he didn't like something," she told a crowd of about 150.

"Don't run from it. Help shape the direction of the new party."

The remark got a hand, but a more seasoned politician might have been more careful, given that Mr. Brison had relatives in the audience.

Some in the crowd also said she's still a wooden performer. "That's the reasons why I didn't come out fast and firm," said Raymond Jefferson, a Wolfville-area Tory. "I was concerned, but I do think she has a good team around her."

For her part, Ms. Stronach said Canadians will cut her some slack given her rookie status. Indeed, for a former auto-parts executive, she seems to exhibit very little guile.

Asked at one point whether she should have participated in a recent television debate for which she was widely criticized, she acknowledged what her handlers probably would never concede. They got outspun.

"I'm not necessarily a slick, polished politician, but I am speaking from the heart," she said. "And I think people have good intuition and they can understand that."

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top