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Belinda defects 

[PoliticsWatch Updated 2:15 p.m. May 17, 2005]

Newly appointed Human Resources Minister Belinda Stronach and Prime Minister Paul Martin stun the Press Gallery Tuesday in Ottawa. (photo by Jake Wright www.jakewright.ca). 

OTTAWA  — Belinda Stronach, a former leadership candidate for the Conservative Party, stunned Ottawa on Tuesday morning when she arrived at the National Press Theatre with Prime Minister Paul Martin to announce she was crossing the floor and joining the Liberal party. 

Stronach has been named human resources minister by Martin and will increase the total number of Liberal seats to 133. She will also assume responsibility for democratic renewal and will help guide the implementation of the recommendations from the Gomery commission's final report. 

Her departure also means it will be more difficult for the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois to defeat the Liberals on a vote of confidence on Thursday evening. 

Combined, the Bloc and Conservatives now have 152 votes. The Liberals and NDP now have 151 votes, plus Independent MP Carolyn Parrish for a total of 152 votes. The Conservatives and the Bloc need the votes of both undecided independent MPs - Chuck Cadman and David Kilgour. 

Stronach's decision to cross the floor was a closely guarded secret and reporters' jaws dropped when she and Martin walked into the press conference together. 

Negotiations to win over Stronach began last Thursday when Stronach attended the Woodrow Wilson dinner in Toronto where she spoke with former Ontario premier David Peterson, the brother of International Trade Minister Jim Peterson, who is one of Martin's friends. 

On Friday, Stronach said she called Peterson and informed him about how she was not comfortable with defeating the Liberal government and going to an election. 

"He said, 'How are things going?'" Stronach recalled. "I said, 'Look, I'm at a bit of a crossroads. I have a dilemma. There's an upcoming vote and there's some issues I'm concerned about.'"

Stronach told Peterson she was considering leaving politics, but Peterson urged her not to quit.

On Friday evening, Martin's chief of staff, Tim Murphy, called the prime minister to inform him that he had been in touch with Peterson and the effort to woo Stronach began. 

According to Stronach, "several discussions" took place on the weekend and her and Peterson met on Saturday for "several hours."

On Monday evening Stronach visited the prime minister at 24 Sussex where they had dinner and presumably hatched out the deal. 

"Based on these shared beliefs she and I have agreed that she fits more comfortably, can serve more appropriately and can contribute more substantially as a member of the government caucus," Martin said. 

The prime minister received laughter from reporters at the press conference when he said, "The significance of her decision is not that it necessarily alters the outcome of Thursday's vote."

Stronach was grilled by reporters about whether her decision to cross the floor was more about political ambition than principle. 

"I watched and listened and feel that the interests of individuals or parties are being placed above the national interest," she said. "The country must come first."

She also blasted Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in her comments. 

"I've been uncomfortable for some time with the direction the leader of the Conservative party has been taking," Stronach said. "I regret to say that I do not believe the party leader is truly sensitive to the needs of each part of the country and just how big and complex Canada really is."

Shortly after their joint press conference Harper held a press conference on Parliament Hill. 

"There's no grand principles involved in this switch of decision, just ambition," Harper said. 

Harper said he had become concerned in recent days about Stronach's future in the party. 

Harper said he told his wife only a few days ago that it had become obvious to Stronach that her leadership aspirations would not be reached in the Conservatives. 

"I thought that would mean trouble," Harper said. "I could see this coming."

When asked about Stronach's criticism of his leadership style, Harper said: "She's not a member of the party so her opinion on who should lead it doesn't really matter all that much.

"I think Belinda's opinion was she should lead it. But that wasn't going to be in the cards now or in the future in my judgement." 

Stronach's decision to cross the floor has an intriguing subplot as she is romantically linked to Deputy Conservative Leader Peter MacKay. 
Harper said MacKay, not Stronach, informed him of the decision and that the news "hurt him terribly badly. 

"I don't question his loyalty in any way," Harper added. 

If Stronach was torn about voting against the budget then it wasn't evident over the last few months. 

In March, Stronach said in the House that the budget was "flawed and defective" and "built on an accounting shell game that seems out of step with the revolution in corporate good governance following scandals like Enron and WorldCom."

Harper also noted that Stronach voted no-confidence against the government in several votes last week. 

Tory MP Rona Ambrose will replace Stronach as the party's trade critic. 

While Harper and Conservatives are not happy with Stronach's decision, others are. The Canadian dollar eased its drop on world currency exchange markets on Tuesday following the news of Stronach's defection. 

``This is a bit of a shock,'' Reid Farrill, director of foreign
exchange in Toronto at CIBC World Markets Inc. told Bloomberg. ``If the government's going to survive, that removes some of the uncertainty in the market.''

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