Rona Ambrose will not vote on her replacement

Ambrose will hand over leadership of the Conservative party following a leadership convention next week

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose gestures while speaking to delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK/CP)

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose gestures while speaking to delegates during the 2016 Conservative Party Convention in Vancouver, B.C. on Thursday May 26, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK/CP)

OTTAWA – Rona Ambrose took on the job of interim Conservative leader with the goal of identifying and developing the party’s future leaders – but apparently, that doesn’t include voting for one.

Ambrose is not taking part in the voting, which has been underway by mail for weeks and will culminate May 27 when the party gathers in Toronto to announce the winner.

“I feel strongly (that) even casting a secret ballot, you’re thinking about who you think should win,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“I’m staying very neutral.”

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Ambrose will have the same piece of advice for whomever emerges the winner: Job 1 needs to be keeping the party together. It was the lone piece of political counsel she got from her predecessor, former prime minister Stephen Harper.

“He’s really given me my space to do my thing but that was his (advice): ‘Never forget, Rona, never forget, that the most important thing is the caucus; without the caucus there is no party,”’ Ambrose said.

When she looked around caucus in the aftermath of the 2015 election, Ambrose said, she realized that much of the institutional memory and experience had left along with the Conservative majority.

One option was to follow suit and quit, but she decided to go another route: seek the interim leadership and set about protecting the party Harper had built and laying the groundwork for its future.

Ambrose has announced her plan to quit politics once the House of Commons rises for the summer. She said she’ll be walking away feeling like she’s helped renew the confidence of old MPs and bolster that of new ones.

The party didn’t really have a succession plan for leadership, so she set about building one. It included placing rookies and veterans alike – she specifically mentioned Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer, both of whom are now seeking the permanent leadership – into shadow cabinet posts.

“I didn’t know these people would actually run for the leadership,” Ambrose said. “I placed them in positions of some authority and some responsibility, because I felt we had to build that for the future.”

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Ambrose’s future holds work as a visiting fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Centre, where she’ll focus on the U.S.-Canada relationship.

With the U.S. starting the 90-day countdown clock for the restart of negotiations on NAFTA this week, the post comes at an interesting time.

NAFTA, she said, is a good example though of why the populist politics that drove Trump’s victory won’t come home to roost in Canada.

The deal worked well for Canada and the economy here – save Alberta’s beleaguered oil patch – doesn’t have the same rusted-out patches that bedevil the U.S., she said.

That, plus the fact that Canada doesn’t have millions of people without access to health care, means whatever rhetoric that worked in the American elections just won’t resonate here, she said.

“I don’t think people respond to it, there has to be a root issue as to why they are responding to it,” she said. “In Canada, the political spectrum is somewhere in the middle and that’s where parties win.”

Yet, there are Conservative leadership candidates seeking to win by going anywhere but the middle. On immigration in particular, the approaches have taken a hard turn right, and accusations that contenders are seeking to run or govern like Trump have been tossed around regularly during the campaign.

Maxime Bernier called his competitor Kellie Leitch a “karaoke Trump” – her platform famously includes a plan to screen newcomers for Canadian values. But Bernier’s own immigration policy addresses the idea, saying immigration should not “aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada.”

Indeed, many Tories – not just those running for leadership – have called for a much tougher stance at the border and on asylum policy in recent months.

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But Ambrose is tight-lipped when asked what she makes of it. She offers the record levels of immigration under the Harper government and the recent push by her entire caucus to get the Liberals to agree to resettle Yazidi refugees, a minority sect from Iraq, as proof the party’s pro-immigration stance is secure.

“To me, that reflects the real sense of what the people in our caucus feel about being inclusive, being welcoming, being open,” she said.

If there’s a lesson for Canadian politicians from south of the border though, it’s the need to keep listening, she added.

“You should always remember who you serve: you’re not there to serve your own policy interests, your own, whatever they are, ideological ideas you want to see come to fruition.

“No, you are there to serve the working people and what’s best for them.”