by Tim Harper
When power flips in the capital, everything turns upside down.
To the victor, the parade, the adulation, everything but the rose petals. To the vanquished, the freight entrance.
And so it was Thursday when a jaunty Prime Minister Justin Trudeau loped into his first caucus meeting to cheers and Stephen Harper returned to the House of Commons via the door reserved for recycling.
Trudeau, it seemed, was everywhere, strolling the grounds of Parliament Hill, even stopping to greet a defeated junior Conservative cabinet minister, Ed Holder. Earlier this week he made an impromptu visit,
garbed in safety vest and hard hat, to Parliament Hill construction workers.
Harper slipped in and out of the Centre Block like a cat burglar with a satchel full of jewels.
While attention was focused on new Liberal ministers, others searched for the back door route Harper would use to exit. He made it. There are a lot of labyrinths to this building and a lot of ways to evade prying cameras. Just ask some senators.
The two sides met across the hall from each other (the New Democrats have been exiled to the basement) but the metaphorical gulf stretched far beyond the 10 metres or so that separate the two Centre Block meeting rooms.
On the Liberal side, it was the first day at school. On the Conservative side, for many, it was the last day at school.
Newly minted Liberals sought directions to the caucus room, asked reporters to snap photos of their first day in the Commons, approached TV personalities to introduce themselves. They think we’re nice.
Conservatives, the masters of employing ropes, security and a heads-down single-minded quest for the nearest door to evade members of the Press Gallery, were suddenly chatty. Extremely chatty.
The Conservative story had more of an urgency on this day, equal parts political inquest and page-turning.
It started with an address from the outgoing leader, Harper, then ultimately the choice of an interim leader, Edmonton’s Rona Ambrose, whose government portfolios have included environment, health and public works.
Harper spoke to his colleagues for 15 to 20 minutes and was accepting of the verdict of voters and accepting of blame for the party’s performance election day. He was relaxed, well-received and it appears that the time for recrimination has passed, although a number of former ministers and MPs have become post-election pundits since Oct. 19.
According to some interpretations, Harper appeared relieved to be able to walk away after almost 10 years at the helm.
Ambrose takes on a big job and one that she could hold for more than a year.
The party, as former treasury board president Tony Clement pointed out, is not facing a “cataclysmic” rebuild as it did after 1993, perhaps the biggest change election in recent history.
The Conservatives have 99 seats and won 32 per cent of the vote and could be a formidable opposition – if Ambrose can keep them relevant and win her share of media attention.
The party should be looking at the way Bob Rae kept the Liberals together when his party was facing a much more daunting rebuild than the one facing the Conservatives today.
Rae set the bar high. He was encyclopedic in his grasp of issues, loquacious with reporters and a strong House performer.
Ambrose limited questions Thursday and has never shown the type of flair in the Commons her party might need to punch through the Trudeau fascination, but she has proved quietly competent in her recent jobs after a stumbling start out of the gate as a Harper minister.
She inherits a caucus that knows that things here could flip again in four years.
“We’re hurting, but we’re united,” said former minister and GTA MP Peter Kent.
While Ambrose keeps the seat warm, others have started to build the mechanism for a run for the permanent leader.
Former defence minister Jason Kenney said his party “got the big things right. We got the tone wrong.”
Neither he nor Clement did anything to squelch leadership rumours and former transport minister Lisa Raitt also left the door open, urging the party first to figure out what it needs to do to win, then seek a
leader who can make that happen.
The Conservatives should clench their teeth, give Trudeau his days in the sun and accept Raitt’s counsel.
They can come back, but they have to realize their problems run deeper than mere leadership.
Liberals in the pre-Trudeau era have already shown them the futility of grasping at leadership as the fix-all.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services