National Affairs: Ambrose upbeat about Tory future

by Paul Wells

They had a Conservative caucus party at Stornoway the other night. Rona Ambrose, the party’s interim leader, had a mechanical bull set up in the backyard. For a while the guests circled the thing warily.

Fortunately, Simcoe-Grey MP Kellie Leitch seems drawn to long shots. She lasted as long on the fake beast as anyone does – not long – but it was all Ambrose’s spouse, J.P. Veitch, a former rodeo cowboy, needed to shame Leitch’s likely rivals for the Conservative leadership into following her example.

Eventually they all got up there. Even Mike Chong with his tie on.

A good time was had by all.

By the time Ambrose welcomed me to Stornoway on Tuesday, the mechanical bull was gone from the back yard. But since last year’s election the Conservative party has faced a similar ride: rough, with slim chances of a comfortable landing. But Ambrose was poised and on message as she fielded my questions.

On her opponents across the aisle: “This Liberal government is not what they sold Canadians on. They told Canadians they were going to be fiscally responsible and approach Parliament differently. They have been arrogant in their approach to Parliament and how they treat the opposition parties. They have broken almost every single promise when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”

On last year’s election defeat: “People were by and large happy with the way things were. Lowest taxes in 50 years, free trade agreements with 51 countries … But then if you also ask Canadians, ëAre you ready for a change?’ People say, ëYeah, maybe I’m ready for a change.'”

On the qualities the next Conservative leader should have: “Any political leader of a national party, first of all, has to be bilingual. And second, there is nothing more important for any political party, but particularly ours, than to be focused on unity. And to make sure that we have someone that can bring the whole country together, from coast to coast.”

Wow, that really doesn’t sound like Kevin O’Leary, the TV huckster, who brags that he has no time to learn French and who’s called the party he (maybe) hopes to lead “losers.”

But when I pressed the point, Ambrose backtracked. O’Leary is “an important voice,” she said.

“Listen, he’s not bilingual, but again, that will have to be up to our members to decide whether that’s a deciding factor.”

Has she talked to Jason Kenney, the Calgary MP who has flirted with running for leadership posts in both the federal and Alberta Conservative parties, about his plans? “Of course.” Does she think he’ll be a leadership candidate at one level or the other? “I don’t see how he wouldn’t be. What I’ve said to him is, the Conservative movement needs Jason Kenney.”

So will it be federal or provincial? “The thing that I appreciate about Jason is, he’s not ego-driven. He will do what he thinks is right for the Conservative movement. He will go where he thinks he can make the biggest impact. Whether that’s federally or provincially will be up to him. And he’s starting to think about that.”

I had hoped to lure her further from her careful, prepared messages. She has a unique position at a difficult time in the young history of the Conservative party. Stephen Harper was the only leader the young party has had. He won three elections, lost one, and these days a lot of people seem to believe the Conservatives should be ashamed to exist.

But Ambrose was not in the mood for a confessional. She remained poised and wary. Twice she seemed to suggest she had hurried to put the Harper years behind her.

“We promised to change our tone,” she said. “We listened to Canadians and we did that. We changed our tone.” And then, a few minutes later: “I think part of this comes with opposition, and maybe it’s my style of management, but there is more freedom in our caucus (now) to pursue issues that people care about. It’s important for our Conservative members of Parliament to feel that they have a voice.”

Is she less strict than Harper? Does she wish he’d been more accommodating? Perish the thought. “It’s hard for me to comment on that because, to be honest, I had nine portfolios and I was given free rein. So when people used to say things about him being controlling, I never understood it.”

Her vision for her party’s future? Upbeat. The next election will offer “such a great contrast,” she said. “The answer to every question (the Liberals) have is to create a new program or take more money out of the pockets of Canadians to put it into another government program. And I think what that shows is a lack of confidence in Canadians.”

Anyone wanting the Conservatives to forsake their decade in power, or hoping they’ll congratulate Justin Trudeau on a job well done, would be disappointed by Ambrose’s remarks. Anyone afraid she might do either would be reassured. Her ride at Stornoway will last just short of one more year before she hands off to the next permanent leader.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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