Hunting for coats and a new leader: Tories prepare for Ottawa

The 99-member Conservative caucus will meet for first time this week after falling to Opposition status

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

OTTAWA – If there’s one thing Dianne Watts knows she needs to do before travelling to Ottawa this week to take her place in the official Opposition caucus, it’s buy warmer clothes.

As the former mayor of Surrey, B.C., Watts hasn’t had much experience with the biting winters she’ll be facing in the national capital as part of the 99-member Conservative team, set to meet for the first time Thursday since the party lost its majority government on Oct. 19.

It was a bittersweet night for Watts, who had announced in 2014 she intended to run for Parliament as a Conservative and was immediately touted as a star candidate with cabinet potential.

She handily won her Vancouver suburban riding, but her party was routed by Justin Trudeau’s resurgent Liberals.

“When I made the decision to run federally, it was a decision I felt strongly about,” she said in an interview.

“Within any party, you don’t agree 100 per cent on things, but the foundational pieces you still agree upon and no matter what I’ve done, I’ve always been a part of effecting change, so for me it’s a great opportunity and a great challenge.”

About a third of the new Conservative caucus is comprised of rookies, some coming from other political careers like Watts, while others like Karen Vecchio are joining after having spent several years working for MPs.

Vecchio worked for more than a decade for Joe Preston, a well-liked Conservative who chose not to run again this time in the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London. She ran in his place and won.

Her background makes her comfortable with the task in front of her, she said.

“If I was a brand new MP who had never seen a members’ office budget before or I’d never seen how the parliamentary precinct works, I’d feel lost,” she said.

Both rookies and veterans will have a learning curve, said James Rajotte, who served in opposition for six years before the Conservatives formed government in 2006.

There’s less access to ministers for help with constituent concerns on immigration or taxes, while at the same time, MPs must do far more work on their own to prepare for committees and study legislation.

“There is a lot more work personally for an opposition MP,” he said.

Watts said she sees room to focus on an issue of importance in her hometown: refugees. Surrey gets the highest number of government-assisted refugees in the country and Watts has been dealing with the issue for a decade, so already on her radar is how the Liberals will follow through with their promise to resettle 25,000 Syrians by year-end.

For Vecchio, making sure the voices of rural Canadians are heard is among her key goals — few on the government side come from outside urban centres, she noted.

The party has another regional dynamic to contend with — no MPs at all from the Atlantic region but more than ever before from Quebec.

The province was the only place in Canada where the Conservatives actually widened their support, producing their best-ever showing of 12 MPs, up from 5 in 2011.

That’s largely credited to the work of Denis Lebel, who served as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant. Some Conservative insiders suggest he should be rewarded for those efforts with a prime place on the opposition benches.

Lebel and Alberta MP Michelle Rempel are lobbying their colleagues to elect them joint interim leaders.

Aside from Lebel and Rempel, six others are vying for the position: former cabinet ministers Diane Finley, Rob Nicholson, Erin O’Toole and Rona Ambrose, as well as junior cabinet ministers Candice Bergen and Mike Lake.

Voting for leader will be among the first orders of business at this week’s meeting. It’s unclear whether Harper himself — who is still an MP — will be present for the vote.

Watts said she thinks there’s a lot of opportunity for the party to examine what they’ve done right in the past and what needs to be changed, following the election.

“I’m looking for someone who will carry that vision, be very pragmatic in terms of looking at what did go wrong and what are we going to do about it,” she said.

Vecchio said her focus is on casting a ballot for someone with statesman or stateswoman-like qualities.

“I’m looking for true leadership, somebody that is compatible that will be able to work with all people from east to west, whether they are representing people from Calgary or people from Quebec, making sure that it’s somebody that can recognize the importance of all the different regions and the different thoughts,” she said.

“I’m not looking for a firecracker.”

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