Imagine a Conservative party led by Rona Ambrose. Where would it be now?

Contemplating the much-admired, experienced politician as the leader of the CPC is speculative political fiction, but it offers some useful insights into the problems currently dogging the party
As interim leader, Ambrose ‘found a way for the party to stabilize’ after Harper’s exit (Photograph by Blair Gable)
CPC interim-leader Rona Ambrose in Ottawa February 1, 2017. Photograph by Blair Gable

There’s a brilliantly intricate episode of Community, the cult-favourite TV show about a group of misfits attending a crummy local college, that hinges on the idea that if you swap out one person for another, everything changes. Pizza arrives during a party, and one character suggests tossing dice to decide who goes downstairs to get it. The rest of the episode plays out in seven wildly different ways depending on who loses the throw, with the worst of these parallel universes featuring a gunshot wound, a fire and a spooky little Norwegian troll statue who seems very pleased with the proceedings.

The variations are perhaps less dramatic in Canadian federal politics—usually—but it’s still possible to walk out an alternate timeline and contemplate how things would be different at the moment if someone else had answered the door.

READ: Who will be the next Tory leader? Ask Rona Ambrose.

Things have not been going swimmingly for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole lately. And there is, on the far side of a dice flip, someone else who seemed a shoe-in to win the leadership and bring a very different set of attributes to the same job: the party’s former interim leader, Rona Ambrose. An Alberta native who grew up partly in Brazil, Ambrose is trilingual and spent much of her career working on issues around women’s rights and opportunities. Since her retirement from politics, she has served on the boards of several corporations—including as deputy chairwoman of TD Securities, currently—and launched the #SheLeads foundation to encourage women to run for public office.

Ambrose was interim leader between 2015 and 2017, in the long shadow cast by former prime minister Stephen Harper, and was so well regarded that a “Draft Rona” movement led by some Tory MPs arose at the 2016 convention, seeking to change party rules so she could run for the leadership. The motion was defeated—Ambrose had already said that she ran for the interim job because she wasn’t interested in the permanent one—and Andrew Scheer ultimately squeaked out a victory.

When Scheer announced he was stepping down after the 2019 election, there was again some very loud wishful Tory thinking that centred on Ambrose. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was one of the most high-profile voices in that choir, when he told a Calgary Herald columnist 20 minutes after Scheer’s announcement that “Rona would be my first call.” But Ambrose again declined to run. She loved her 13 years in public service but was now “focused on making a difference through the private sector,” she said at the time.

Since O’Toole’s victory over front-runner Peter MacKay—thanks to picking up secondary votes overwhelmingly from supporters of social conservative candidates Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan—he has walked the classic post-leadership knife’s edge of trying to introduce himself to a more centrist general electorate without alienating the constituency that helped get him there. He has often looked out of step with the party’s base or with the broader Canadian electorate—or, confoundingly, with both at once. His party, meanwhile, is mired around 30 per cent support with the Liberals five points ahead, regardless of their controversies or missteps.

Contemplating Rona Ambrose as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is speculative political fiction, but it offers some useful insights into the problems currently dogging the party and its actual leader. Would Canadian politics be any less polarized and intransigent with her at the helm? Would the Tories be threatening the Liberals in the polls? Would the opposition’s cross-examination of the government’s pandemic handling have been more effective?

In constructing an alternate universe in which to contemplate how things might be different if Ambrose was the leader of the CPC right now, the simplest path is imagining that she decided to throw her hat in the ring last year after sitting out the previous leadership contest, according to the party’s rules. In that scenario, Dennis Matthews, vice-president at Enterprise Canada and former director of strategic communications to Ambrose, says she would have “immediately taken on a bit of a front-runner status.” (Like the other Tory analysts quoted in this story, Matthews does not personally have his knives out for O’Toole, but rather agreed to play along with this little thought exercise; this is a parlour game rather than a grassroots uprising.)

“She was seen as a very competent interim leader who helped the party pick up out of defeat and sort of shake itself off and not fall into the trap that the federal Liberals fell into, where they spent too much time wallowing and self-reflecting and having to go through a full rebuild,” he says. “She sort of found a way for the party to stabilize in the early days and set it up for Andrew Scheer to at least have something that was functioning and running well, and he took it where he took it, but it wasn’t like he was building something up from scratch. I think there would have been a sea of goodwill.”

Indeed, polls point to exactly that, says Philippe J. Fournier, the polling analyst behind 338Canada and a Maclean’s contributing editor. A Leger poll from January 2020 asked respondents who would be the best person to lead the CPC, and Ambrose was the top choice of voters at large (10 per cent), followed by Harper (nine per cent) and MacKay (seven per cent); the preference for those three candidates was even stronger among CPC partisans. O’Toole landed in the one per cent range, alongside John Baird and Michelle Rempel Garner. “Erin O’Toole did what he had to do during the campaign, but it was not an alliance—how you say—of love,” says Fournier. “It was more of convenience.”

And that, in Fournier’s mind, led to some of the current tensions that Ambrose would not have had to wrestle with. An Angus Reid poll from December 2019—shortly after the last federal election in the pre-pandemic BeforeTimes—found that Canadians named climate change as their top issue, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, the three most populous provinces where the CPC needs to make serious inroads if it is to supplant the Liberals. But O’Toole’s base disagrees; at his party’s policy convention in March, he stated flatly in his keynote speech that climate change was a real threat that needed to be confronted, and then was repudiated by his party’s membership less than 24 hours later, when they voted down a resolution saying as much.

“That’s a big problem for any leader, but Erin O’Toole, he did an alliance during the leadership campaign, which I don’t think somebody like Rona Ambrose would have done. I don’t think she would have needed to do that,” Fournier says. “Erin O’Toole needed to do that to beat Peter MacKay, so now he owes them, or they feel like Erin O’Toole owes them something.” With climate change increasingly seen as a can’t-dodge issue, Ambrose, as a daughter of Alberta, may have gotten more credibility and less resentment from the Western provinces where resistance to the issue runs hottest, but she also may have been seen as a traitor if she made a serious attempt to tackle it. “Being from Alberta, you’ve got the ‘Only Nixon can go to China’ feel on some of that stuff, so I do think there’s some potential advantage there, but I’m not sure there would be a huge difference,” says Matthews. “When you think about the base—the members, the donors, the activists—they’re just on a different page than perhaps swing voters or others are at on environmental issues, and it’s two tough crowds to bring together, regardless of who the leader is.”

As a leader, O’Toole is not very well-known, and to the extent that he’s becoming more familiar, public opinion is not getting kinder yet. An Abacus Data poll from March found that one-third of Canadians had a negative view of him, compared to 20 per cent with a positive opinion. “This is the highest negative we’ve measured for Mr. O’Toole since we started tracking his public image,” the polling firm said. And as Fournier reported in additional data from that poll, the real problem for O’Toole is what his own political tribe thinks of him. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are liked in similarly high proportions among their own supporters (79 and 81 per cent, respectively), but only 62 per cent of Conservative voters give O’Toole the thumbs-up. “The enthusiasm gap is something really real,” says Fournier. “Enthusiastic voters tend to show up more in large numbers.”

But even in an alternate universe where Ambrose is the current CPC leader, the federal political landscape might not be so different. Pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research segments voters according to their values, and he’s found that both populism and fiscal conservatism are down as a result of the pandemic. That suggests the overarching crisis has made the Liberals’ offering an easier sell. And it also means that when things normalize, the Conservatives might suddenly find more buyers. “That may mean there is just a pandemic effect, and everything that we’re focused on here, when the pandemic is behind us and if values rebound to where they were before, then the Tories would come up, without doing anything at all,” Lyle says.

During his policy convention speech, O’Toole made the point that his party cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result, Matthews points out. But O’Toole himself is a Conservative leader straight out of central casting. “One of the inherent challenges O’Toole faces is that he can do and say things that are different, but he’s got to really work at it,” Matthews says. “Because when you take a quick glance and look at Mr. O’Toole, you’ve got somebody who’s a sterling Conservative candidate: military experience, great family, but he’s also—and I don’t mean this in a negative sense—he’s a middle-aged white guy.”

Saro Khatchadourian, a former communications staffer in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition under Ambrose, thinks of his grandparents, who always serve as his barometer for how average people think about politics and politicians. They immigrated from Cairo in the 1960s, where they’d gone after their families were displaced by the Armenian genocide, and now live in Scarborough, Ont., where they are faithful news watchers. When Khatchadourian worked on Parliament Hill, they were always asking him for his insider take on the politicians they saw on TV. But with Ambrose, it was different—they decided on their own that they liked her based on what they saw; in his grandfather’s estimation, “She means business.”

Khatchadourian marched in the Pride Parade with Ambrose and points to that openness and a relatively progressive voting record as some of her biggest assets as the hypothetical leader of a Conservative party looking to stake out a bigger tent. “It shows you she is a refreshing face for a party that has been plagued with some of the—how do I say this?—perception issues or PR issues over the past couple of decades,” he says.

Jamie Ellerton, principal at Conaptus Ltd. and a former Conservative staffer and strategist, sees Ambrose’s political traits and persona as particularly well-suited to both the crisis of the pandemic and where her party needs to go. “I think with her empathy and optimism and warmth, it feels like you’re building and a part of something, as opposed to coming to politics because you’re angry and looking to vote someone out,” he says. “You can be constructive and holding the government to account and be a conservative partisan without your brand being that you’re angry and cross all the time. Having a more empathetic face and a more empathetic leader leading the opposition during this crisis is something that would have yielded benefits, both politically and to the country as a whole.” O’Toole’s leadership style, in contrast, has been polarized, prosecutorial and oppositional: vote for me because I’m not him and we’re not them.

READ: Erin O’Toole starts to define his conservatism

Ambrose spent nearly a decade in various posts in Harper’s cabinet, including minister of health and minister of public works and government services, in charge of procurement. Those two portfolios in particular would have been useful experience in leading the opposition and interrogating the government over the last year, Ellerton points out. He could envision her credibly adopting a “Team Canada” approach to handling the pandemic, given that the Trudeau government tapped her for its NAFTA advisory council. “Having that experience at the table at the beginning of this crisis, I think, would have been invaluable,” he says. “It does not mean she’s perfect, it does not mean she has all the answers, but she’s seen things like this before, especially in those early stages when the Ebola crisis was beginning to unfold and we were starting to hear the hysteria of what it meant for Canada.”

But her previous cabinet experience could be a liability, too. “If Rona ends up running in 2020 for the Conservative party leadership race, I think there’s a much closer examination of her time in cabinet, and Rona would have had to account for her time at Environment and some of the other perceived missteps in other portfolios,” says Ellerton. Indeed, when Ambrose was minister of public works, she brought in the project that would become the colossal failure of the Phoenix pay system, and at Environment, she was the face of the Harper government’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases.

The fact is that Ambrose’s record on those and other fronts hasn’t been prosecuted because her leadership exists only in the perfect, tidy vacuum of the hypothetical. People always want what they can’t have, Matthews points out, and other interim political leaders, like Bob Rae, have worn the same unattainable and unsullied “glow” of long-term leadership that never was.

“You look at what would Rona Ambrose look like having gone through a bruising leadership battle—because it’s not as though people would have stepped aside and given her the job—and what would she look like on the receiving end of Liberal attacks and all that kind of stuff that comes to an opposition leader,” he says. “There’s a lot of punches you’ve got to take between where she was and where she would be today if she was in the job today, and it’s hard to know what you would look like on the other side of that, even if you’re the best candidate out there.”

This article appears in print in the June 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “If Rona had run.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.