As the interim Conservative leader, Alberta MP Rona Ambrose will be the main voice of the official Opposition until Tories pick Stephen Harper’s successor, likely sometime well into 2017. Ambrose spoke with Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes about using that time to set a new tone and to return to Conservative principles. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: You’ve spoken of reaffirming your party’s core concerns, and reasserting its role as a “voice of the taxpayer.” Have Conservatives drifted away from anchoring principles?
A: I think it’s just natural when you’re governing, that it’s not always easy to remain as pure in principle as you’d like to be. I think in opposition it’s an opportunity for us to get back to the principles of the Conservative party and of the conservative movement. So when I talk about that, I talk about our opposition to big government, big spending, high taxes and high deficits, but I also talk about intrusive government.
We can do more, you know, in terms of talking to Canadians about their individual liberty. I’m a libertarian, I come from that part of the conservative movement. But I think there are a lot of things that we stand for when it comes to personal liberty that are attractive to a lot of young people in this country.
Q: In the House, correct me if I’m wrong, I think I saw you shush some of your MPs at one point when they were shouting back when the Prime Minister was on his feet…
Q: Would you like to comment on that? What are you thinking about in terms of the image in the House of Commons that your party projects?
A: I was named the most civil parliamentarian when I was a minister, and I’ll continue to act the way I’ve always acted. I have a great deal of respect for the office of the Prime Minister. And so, when he gets up to speak, I think that everyone owes him the respect to listen. We have very competing agendas, and that’s great. That’s what Parliament is about. But there’s no need for anyone to be heckling each other.
Q: Do you think there was a problem with the Conservative tone during the fall election campaign, and how would you want to adjust that?
A: Well, I think we’ve already started to adjust. There are things about our values that we should focus on more. And I think that we’ve done that right out of the gate.
Q: How do you mean?
A: You know, focusing on our core areas like the economy. Focusing on areas of public safety, national security—all of those things are areas in which, frankly, most Canadians agree with us—and not being distracted by some sort of boutique issues, if I could call them that, and just focusing on what really matters most to Canadians.
Q: How would you balance emphasizing security as one of those core themes without making it seem like you are overly suspicious about particular groups or targeting them?
A: It’s just not true. I mean, we’re all in this together. I have had a number of meetings with the Muslim community since I’ve become leader of the Opposition. I think it’s incumbent on all of us as politicians to be very clear that this isn’t about laying blame at the feet of Muslims writ large. It’s about reaching out to those in the Muslim community who have progressive views on issues around equality of women, around denouncing terrorism anywhere in the world, but especially in Canada. We’re all working on those relationships.
Q: Where do you stand on allowing or not allowing the niqab to be worn during the Canadian citizenship ceremony?
A: I think there should be some way to find some kind of reasonable accommodation that allows the state to continue to say, you know, that women’s rights supersede any kind of a cultural custom that’s oppressive to women, but also potentially allows a woman to take the oath, I don’t know, in a separate room. It would be up to the court to find some kind of cultural accommodation.
Q: Let me switch gears and ask you about electoral reform. Trudeau has promised to change the way we elect MPs. What’s your position?
A: I think that any reform of that fundamental nature, potentially constitutional, it has to go to the people. It has to be a be a referendum, and that’s why it was a plebiscite in all of the provinces in which it’s been attempted.
I pass no judgment on the type of electoral reform because I don’t know what they’re proposing yet. But what I do think is when you’re talking about the most fundamental way we govern ourselves, it’s not up to this House; it’s up to the people. I don’t think it’s in the spirit of openness and transparency to unilaterally bring forward a piece of legislation that changes the fundamental way we govern this country.
Q: For most of the past decade or so, the conventional wisdom around Ottawa has been that the Conservative party’s organizational capacity was unsurpassed. You could raise money, reach out to your supporters, get out your vote. Do you think the election result suggests that some complacency set in?
A: Well, what I can tell you is that, as the interim leader, one of my goals is to work with the party to make sure we have the right infrastructure in place so that, when the new leader is chosen, he or she can actually just get out and campaign and take advantage of all the good work that we’ll do over the next 18 months or a little longer. You know, if you look at the numbers, we started [the election campaign] with 32 per cent of the vote, and we ended with 32 per cent of the vote. So did we get our vote out? Yes, we got our vote out. But it wasn’t enough.
Q: Your party has embarked on a leadership selection process that could take as long as two years. At any point in that long process, would you consider stepping aside as interim leader and throwing your hat in the ring?
A: No, it’s not an option for me personally. I’ve given my commitment.
A: I just think this is a better—I’m better suited to this. I think that, you know, I’ve been a bridge-builder. I’m very comfortable in my skin in this role. I’m looking forward to helping rebuild the party. And I’m willing to do that hard work that it’s going to take. But part of my job is getting this party ready for the new leader, and that is a big job that I take very seriously. I want to be able to hand over the key and say, “It’s in good shape, take it from here.”