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With plans to ‘back off’ politics, Frank Stronach eyes U.S. think tank

Austro-Canadian businessman and billionaire Frank Stronach listens to his phone during an interview with Reuters in the village of Oberwaltersdorf on April 22, 2013.

LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS

When Canadian businessman Frank Stronach launched a new political party in Austria a year ago, he planned to shake up the country. But now after a bruising election campaign last month that saw Team Stronach win 11 seats, roughly half the number he expected, Mr. Stronach plans to back off from active politics, spend more time in Canada and start a think tank in Washington.

"I rattled the cage," Mr. Stronach said in an interview Thursday from Austria. "I said what had to be said. I'm so independent I don't have to suck up to anyone."

Austrians, he added, were too comfortable and not ready for his message of spending cuts, tax reform, ending the euro and radically changing the parliamentary system. "The timing wasn't quite right."

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Mr. Stronach had high expectations for his party, forecasting taking as many as 20 seats in the country's 183-seat legislature and potentially becoming a coalition partner in a new government. At one point during the campaign, that projection looked possible as Team Stronach rose to 10 per cent in some opinion polls. But as the campaign wore on, he and the party became less popular. He faced criticism from his own ranks after musing about bringing back the death penalty for contract killers and gave erratic performances during televised leaders' debates. In the end the party won 5.7 per cent of the vote.

Since the election, Team Stronach has been embroiled in internal bickering over money and policy. Mr. Stronach said the party is going through a "cleaning" process by weeding out some members who differ on policy, all of which will make it stronger. He plans to take his seat in parliament at some point but won't be there for long and has announced that he will be replaced by Ulla Weigerstorfer, an Austrian businesswoman and former Miss World beauty pageant winner.

"I'm going to back off," he said. "I've got lots of business in Canada. I've got two grandchildren which are a certain age. My grandson is already working with me in business. So I enjoy that. It gives me great pleasure."

He expressed some bitterness about the campaign and the attacks that focused on his years away from the country, which he left in the 1950s for Canada where he founded auto parts giant Magna International Inc. "You don't enjoy it when so much dirt is thrown on you," he said. "But you know, [former Canadian Prime Minister] Jean Chrétien was always a good friend of mine he said, 'Frank, when you run in politics they are going to throw so much dirt against you, don't worry about it, rise and it falls off'."

For now, Mr. Stronach, 81, plans to return to Canada and the U.S., where he owns a string a horse-racing tracks. He is also launching a think tank called the Centre for Economic Freedom, a non-partisan institute based in Washington that will propose solutions to economic and social problems.

As for politics, he is moving away from day-to-day involvement with Team Stronach and has no plans to start a similar movement in Canada. But, he added, "I'll be available, always, for advice."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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