OTTAWA — All politicians work to a clock ticking down towards the next election, but interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose's immediate task winds up a lot sooner.
In less than a year her party will select a permanent replacement, and one of Ambrose's key tasks is ensuring the leadership race doesn't undo her work uniting and motivating a caucus and a party reduced to opposition status in the last election.
She's canvassing candidates individually to get a sense of their campaign plans and has also spoken to MPs and senators about balancing their Commons roles with whatever they do to help would-be leaders, laying out guidelines for what they can and cannot do in order to avoid rifts.
At the same time, said Ambrose, she doesn't want leadership contenders to feel they have to hold back.
Rona Ambrose speaks during the annual Press Gallery Dinner on June 4 in Gatineau. (Photo: Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
"I want it to be competitive, I want them to talk about issues they think are important that might distinguish themselves from another leadership candidate," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"There are going to be times they talk about policies that aren't even part of our party and that's completely fine, that's good, that's healthy. The membership will decide."
The marker of success will be whether the losers can happily return to caucus, she said.
So far, the three declared candidates — Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong — are sitting MPs. So are most of those contemplating a leadership run. Former Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer is likely to declare soon, as is longtime Tory MP and former cabinet minister Tony Clement. Former senior minister Jason Kenney, meanwhile, is on the cusp of deciding whether he'll run for his federal party or take the helm of the unite-the-right movement in Alberta.
Ambrose's name has been floated for the Alberta position as well, but when asked what she'll do next she said she'd stay on the Hill and help with the transition.
Rona Ambrose during Question Period in the House of Commons, June 14. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
"I will stay to support the new leader, absolutely, that's important," she said.
Ambrose and her partner J.P. Veitch have kept a punishing schedule, spending House of Commons break weeks travelling the country for fundraisers and local events. Most nights and mornings in Ottawa are taken up with similar pursuits.
Veitch has adopted the political spouse role with vigour as the two have tried to open up their official residence at Stornoway for as many events as possible, hosting MPs and their families, staffers, the media and others on a regular basis.
It's part of the rebranding exercise the Tories are engaged in overall as they strive to shake off the negative associations built up over former prime minister Stephen Harper's decade at the helm of the party and the country.
"What people expect their prime ministers to do is focus on the big issues."
A big tool in that campaign has been humour: an April Fool's joke listing Stornoway, the official Opposition residence, on Airbnb; a mechanical bull at a party; gags aplenty in a press gallery speech.
"I think that does change the tone but it doesn't diminish our ability to ask tough questions," said Ambrose.
The need for a change in tone was a message communicated clearly by voters in the last election, but it's also a reflection of a response to her political foe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose political style is very different from his predecessor.
There's nothing wrong with Trudeau's appearances on the cover of Vogue or his other efforts to find new ways to connect with Canadians, Ambrose said. At the end of the day that's not what Canadians will judge him on.
"What people expect their prime ministers to do is focus on the big issues. So if he fails on the economy and he fails on keeping Canadians safe, then he'll have failed," she said.
"No spread in Vogue is going to be enough."