OTTAWA — The Conservative party needs to do a better job of engaging with young people, interim leader Rona Ambrose says.
In a wide-ranging year-end interview with The Huffington Post Canada, Ambrose, who was elected interim leader last month after the Tories lost the federal election and Stephen Harper resigned, said the Tories need to expand their voter base and reach out to youth, women, and families.
While the Conservatives' election result wasn't awful — the party started the election with 32 per cent of support and ended with 32 per cent of the vote, Ambrose said the Liberals got "quite a bit more votes" and her party "lost touch" with young people and with women.
"That's not acceptable."
Rona Ambrose speaks in Stornoway. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/CP)
Ambrose hopes the upcoming Conservative leadership race will provide a new injection of ideas and an opportunity to expand the Tory base.
"I want to see us grow. I want to see us expand our reach. I think that we have a lot of work to do in certain communities across the country.
"When you look at … the core policies of our party, things like individual liberties and things like self-sufficiency are the things that really should be resonating with young people and with, of course, women, writ large, whether they are women in their careers or women that stay home with their kids."
Lots of young people care about civil liberties and the new sharing economy, she said.
"Uber, you know, everything's different now. The new digital economy and the new sharing economy is not something we're even talking about in Parliament. But it's the way that young people are starting to live. And I think you're going to see more and more of these kinds of businesses, but we don't even have the regulations to deal with them yet."
"Because it's 2015, you should just get the job because you're good. And, you're a woman."
Ambrose is also confident the party will be able to speak to women in a way that treats them as equals rather than tokens that deserve special treatment.
"I think it's important to have parity, but I also think that you don't need to announce it in advance," she said, referring to Trudeau's gender-parity pledge for his cabinet. "It makes some of the women feel like that's the only reason they got the job."
"Because it's 2015, you should just get the job because you're good. And, you're a woman," she said.
Some women feel that Trudeau's position is "a little bit offensive," she added. "We want to compete, we want to get the job because we deserve the job. We don't want to be told: the reason, the No. 1 reason you're there is because Justin Trudeau needs parity in his cabinet."
Conservatives don't shy away from placing deserving women in powerful positions, Ambrose noted, pointing to her own election as interim leader as an example. She, in turn, has appointed several strong women to her front bench: Lisa Raitt as finance critic, Michelle Rempel as immigration critic, Candice Bergen as natural resources critic, Kelly Block as transport critic, and Kellie Leitch as health critic.
"When you create an environment where women can succeed, then you don't need quotas."
Ambrose took great care in her interview with HuffPost to say the party does not need to reach out to any specific ethnic community.
This past election, the Tories fixated on tip lines for reporting barbaric cultural practices, floated the idea of barring niqabs from the public service, and campaigned on stripping Canadian citizenship from naturalized Canadians who are convicted of terrorism and other serious offences. Many observers felt the tactics were an attack against the Muslim community.
Ambrose speaks in the House of Commons as Opposition leader. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
In an interview with Maclean's magazine, Ambrose said the campaign was distracted by "boutique issues." The party needs to refocus on its core strengths, she told HuffPost.
"The economy, public safety, security, defence issues, a principled approach to human rights issues and foreign affairs — these are all areas in which we have a wide, wide consensus across the country from Canadians, but mostly from Conservatives," she said.
"I believe that any community in Canada cares about their taxes, their families, safe communities. It doesn't matter whether it's an ethnic community or not, whether they're newly arrived or they've been here for three generations," she added.
"Those things matter to Canadian families. Those are the things we'll be focusing on. And they resonate in large cities, in rural communities, so for me, I think it's important to focus on the core issues that matter to Canadians, regardless what their ethnic background is."
Election was part of 'natural evolution'
If Ambrose is critical of the way the Conservative party ran the last election, or the government, she isn't saying so.
"It's very easy to be philosophically pure when you are the opposition, but when you get into government there are many things that … come out of left field that you all of a sudden need to deal with," she said. The Tories took on a deficit to fight the global recession, she said, by way of example. "That is not anything a Conservative is comfortable with doing, but we did it because we knew that we had to put an injection into the economy immediately."
Of course, the Tories also tabled a stimulus plan, because the Liberals and the NDP were threatening to defeat the minority government if they didn't.
All governing parties eventually need to make sacrifices, Ambrose said.
"It's just like the Liberals that have made 200 and some election promises — they will not be able to keep all of them. That's the reality of governing."
What happened this election, Ambrose suggested was "just a natural evolution" in Canadian politics.
"I think if you asked people on the day of the election … unless they were really die-hard Liberal party members, they probably couldn't even tell you the policies of the Liberal party or what was in the platform."
"If you look back, historically, it is almost impossible for a government to be in power for 10 years and small grievances to not accumulate and then have an effect…. It was just a matter of time, and it was an overwhelming desire for change," she said.
"I think if you asked people on the day of the election … unless they were really die-hard Liberal party members, they probably couldn't even tell you the policies of the Liberal party or what was in the platform. And so, when these things happen — we saw it in Alberta with the NDP — the next day, people didn't even know what they had actually voted for, but they knew they voted for change. And so we recognize that and that happens after 10 years of a government, I think it's just historically the way things are."
History will be kind to Harper, she said. While she is the new leader and she has changed her mind on one notable Tory position — she now supports a public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls — she stands by most of the party's positions, such as on First Nations financial transparency requirements. In her interview with HuffPost, Ambrose was quite critical of First Nations chiefs, saying they were part of the problem afflicting women in their communities.
A self-described libertarian, Ambrose defended her vote on M-312, a motion that was widely seen as an attempt to reopen the abortion debate by striking a committee to study when life begins. She said that was a "personal" vote on a motion, not legislation, and that she has no plans to reopen the abortion issue.
She also said she is concerned about the Liberals' plans to legalize marijuana, not because she worries about what her neighbours are doing in the privacy of their own homes but because of the health effects on children. She is vehemently against the idea of having provincial liquor boards, such as Ontario's LCBO, sell pot, as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has suggested because she thinks it will be easier for young people to get their hands on it.
The Liberals' centre-left platform has given the Conservatives a great deal of space to carve out centre-right policy positions, Ambrose said.
'This is not the Paul Martin Liberals'
"This is not the Paul Martin Liberals with balanced budgets and low taxes. This is a tax-and-spend large-government Liberal party. It's more on the end of the New Democratic Party than it is towards the centre."
Ambrose pledged to hold try to hold the government to its deficit promise; to press the Liberals to maintain the military mission against ISIS; and to oppose the likely dismantling of most Conservative crime bills from the past 10 years.
"There will be a lot of contrast between the opposition Conservatives and the Liberal government…. That's a good thing. It's healthy for democracy, and it will make Parliament interesting."
Her goals, Ambrose said, are to mount a formidable opposition in Parliament and to prepare the ground for a leadership race.
"There is lots of work to do in the next 18 months to two years, but I'm very excited about it."
The party is in a good place financially, it has a strong 99-member caucus and a healthy membership, she said, although the party declined to say how many members it has.
"You know, it's been a decade with one leader, and now we are looking for a new leader. … When that happens, it is an opportunity and a time to reflect on what it is we want to be, going into the next decade potentially. And so there is a lot of strength in the foundation of our party … but it's an opportunity to talk about what comes next.
"There are opportunities to think about things but from a Conservative point of view on the environment, for instance. I think that is an important policy area for Conservatives to focus in on and think about…. We need to articulate our love of the environment, because there's no one that I know that doesn't care about the environment. And yet, it's a policy area in which people probably don't exactly know what we stand for, more so what we stand against."
Ambrose speaks at a press conference with Harper in 2007. (Photo: John Ulan/CP)
Ambrose started off her ministerial career as environment minister in 2006. While she was pegged as a bright star in the Conservative caucus, Harper's marching orders made her stint at at the department less than fruitful.
She was the minister who announced that Canada had no chance of meeting its Kyoto targets. She was criticized for muzzling a scientist who wanted to speak about a novel he'd written, and she was blasted for introducing a weak environmental bill, the Clean Air Act. Less than a year later, she was demoted to minister of intergovernmental affairs.
"When you are part of a team, you are there to support your leader and the vision of your leader, and all of us, we were very strong team players and we played our role as ministers," Ambrose said about that period. "It's different when you are the leader. You have the opportunity to set a tone, and it's your own tone and obviously it is different than another person…. I had a lot of challenges, but I had a lot of successes."
Now, Ambrose said, she has the opportunity to put her own "stamp" on the party.
We'll all be watching.
Rona Ambrose answered several of our readers' questions during our wide-ranging interview. Here are a few more answers she provided to some specific questions:
On being a feminist and voting for M-312: (Question from Shana Proulx)
"If a feminist means that you're pro the equality of men and women and the complete potential of women to reach, or the empowerment for women to reach their full potential, then I'm happy to call myself a feminist, although some people think of it in a pejorative way. That was a free vote [M-312] and I respect and always will respect our party's position that we have no desire to open up this debate. There was not legislation, there wasn't a move to change the current law or anything like that, but I do respect that our party is the only party in the House that allows people to have a free vote. I've always respected our party's position, and I always will…. That was my own personal choice…. It was a motion, not a piece of legislation."
On why she won't say what voting system she prefers: (Question from Sterling Matan)
"I think it's good that we have a parliamentary committee to discuss these issues, but that is a government-led committee with a majority of members from the government, plus it is only representative of members of the House of Commons. It is not representative of the people, so I've said to Mr. Trudeau that if he wants to make a fundamental change to our democracy, he should take it to the people in a referendum.
"I don't judge. If our voting system changes one day, political parties will have to adjust. But in the meantime, if he wants to make a change like that it has to go to the people. So it's not really about [whether] one system is better than the other. I think that those discussions will be had at the committee, and we'll hear from all kinds of experts…. It would be the first time since Confederation that we change our voting system, so I think it should be a national debate and a national referendum."
On defending those future Conservative patronage appointments: (Question from Alesa Sutherland)
"It's not the first time this has happened. What I've said to the government is they have every right to cancel them should they want to, but I'd really advise them to look at each appointment by merit. Because one of the appointments I made was someone who's completely non partisan and was by far the best person for the job and is highly credible, and now she's resigned because it was intimidating and humiliating to be called out as a partisan patronage appointment…. These people all went through lengthy, lengthy interviews by the Privy Council, background checks…. The ones I know of are highly credible people, so I think It's wrong to just dismiss them and embarrass them publicly the way the government has. I think they should look at each of them and assess them on their merits. And if they are credible, which many many of them are, it would save them a lot of time and money [by keeping] them."
On what the government should do about the soaring costs of the ship-building program? (Question from Peter Howie)
"The soaring cost frankly is, it's a reflection of, more than likely, the specs. It's also a reflection of some of the time that passed between when the navy first put forward their price and cost estimates…. You have to remember also — this is a very policy heavy answer — but the reality is that when a navy without that ship is trying to estimate costs, they do it in an open source way, based on other similar ships in other parts of the world. But really, as the project moves along, they're constantly updating their cost estimates. There has to be flexibility in the budget for that, and there should be."
Ambrose said she thought the costs should be reviewed by an independent third party but overall she thinks the navy is doing a good job. "My experience with them is: actually, they've managed these projects to date well, but there has to be an understanding that there will be some issues around the cost estimates as the projects evolve. Now, there's also clauses in those contracts to get out of these contracts. So, if the government decides it's just too expensive, they can exit the contracts. So, there's protection in those contracts to protect the taxpayer."
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