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Ambrose leaves Conservative Party on a high note, brought party together after 2015 defeat and leaves it in good financial shape, say Conservatives

By Rachel Aiello      

Many of Rona Ambrose's caucus colleagues were surprised to learn of her impending departure from news stories the night before her official announcement.

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose announced Tuesday, May 16, that she will be stepping down as the MP for Sturgeon River-Parkland, Alta., after the House adjourns for the summer. The Washington-based Wilson Centre announced that she will join its Canada Institute as a fellow. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

CHATEAU LAURIER HOTEL, OTTAWA—Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who announced Tuesday morning that she will resign her seat in the House before it breaks in June for the summer, is exiting on a high note and leaving the party in good financial shape for the next leader, say Conservatives.

“As my time comes to an end I think it’s important to look forward, and so I am, as you know, going to be resigning my seat as Member of Parliament after the House rises in the summer,” Ms. Ambrose (Sturgeon River-Parkland, Alta.) told a room of political players Tuesday morning in her final public speech as interim leader of the Conservative Party at a Canadian Club of Ottawa breakfast at the Château Laurier Hotel.

In her speech, Ms. Ambrose regaled the audience with tales of her career. She talked about how she helped rebuild the Conservative caucus after it lost power in 2015 and outlined the approach she said she thinks the party needs to take in order to provide a real alternative to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and the Liberals in 2019.

“We’ve presented a fresh face to Canadians who now see a smart Conservative team that is a very real alternative to the Liberal government that is increasingly out of touch and entitled,” said Ms. Ambrose, who didn’t step back from partisan jabs at the Trudeau government in her speech.

Rona Ambrose announced at the Canadian Club of Ottawa breakfast on Tuesday, May 16 that she’s leaving federal politics when the House of Commons breaks for summer recess. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Ms. Ambrose, who will be joining Washington-based think tank the Wilson Centre as a visiting fellow, also highlighted the strong position she’s leaving the party in, and offered advice on how to maintain momentum. Ms. Ambrose cited the $9-million the Conservatives raised in the first quarter of 2017—according to Elections Canada, the Conservative party raised $5.3-million, and the leadership contenders another $4.6-million—and noted the number of people who said they would consider voting for the Conservative Party is up 10 points. She also pointed out the party’s membership numbers are more than 259,000.

“We need to keep reaching out to Canadians of all backgrounds to make our case for change. And I think one way we can do this more effectively is by having more women on our team, and I believe that strongly,” said Ms. Ambrose, adding that she plans to lead that charge personally.

Ms. Ambrose announced her resignation at the end of her speech to the crowd at the Chateau Laurier, although the news broke Monday afternoon. She called it “the worst kept secret” and said she thought the media found out last.

But the news did come as a surprise to some of her Conservative colleagues who learned about it in the news.

About an hour after iPolitics broke the story on Monday, Ms. Ambrose sent caucus a note saying: “I wanted you to know that tomorrow, I will be announcing that I will not seek re-election in 2019. I will stay on until our new leader is elected and settled in, likely wrapping things up at the end of June.”

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs received an email last week from the Official Opposition Leader’s Office asking them to attend Tuesday morning’s speech, without any specifics on what Ms. Ambrose would be discussing. Among those who attended were deputy opposition leader Denis Lebel (Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.); Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.); Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.); Glen Motz (Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner, Alta.); Pierre-Paul Hus (Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles, Que.); James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.); and Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.).

Ms. Ambrose’s Chief of Staff Garry Keller at her May 16 breakfast speech at the Château Laurier. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Some of her main staff members were in attendance as well, including chief of staff Garry Keller; principal secretary Jordan Paquet; senior communications officer Saro Khatchadourian; press secretary Jake Enwright; and director of communications Mike Storeshaw. Ms. Ambrose’s photographer, Deborah Ransom, was also shadowing her, taking photos of her mingling with breakfast attendees.

Following her speech, Michele Austin, who worked for Ms. Ambrose when she was in prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, and is now a senior adviser at Summa Strategies—told The Hill Times she was impressed by her commitment in the speech to encourage more women to join the Conservative Party, and that her performance as interim leader during the past 18 months has been “flawless,” citing her management of caucus and describing her communications with Canadians as “positive and refreshing.”

“As a colleague and friend, I’m really glad that she’s going out on such a high note, and that she’s got all these exciting things waiting for her in her next life,” said Ms. Austin.

Ms. Austin said Ms. Ambrose has had personal chats with her and fellow friends over the last six months about what was next and they knew this day was coming.

Shortly after Ms. Ambrose spoke on Tuesday morning, the Washington-based Wilson Centre published a press release announcing that she would be joining its Canada Institute as a visiting global fellow with a focus on Canada- U.S. trade.

“Ambrose will lead the Institute’s efforts to convene U.S. and Canadian officials to explore the benefits of an integrated and competitive North American economy that is focused on job creation and prosperity,” stated the posting on the think tank’s website.

The Canada Institute director Laura Dawson said in the press release: “We are thrilled to host Ms. Ambrose. She has demonstrated extraordinary leadership both in government and in opposition on Canada-U.S. issues. Ms. Ambrose will be a source of insightful ideas and a champion of North American competitiveness during the renegotiation of NAFTA this fall.”

Meanwhile, Summa Strategies’ vice president Jim Armour, a former Conservative Hill staffer, told The Hill Times that he believes Ms. Ambrose “can leave with her head held high and she’s really done an incredible job as interim leader … the membership has never been higher, the party’s raised more money, the caucus has done a very good job as official opposition holding the government to account, and things are looking good for the next leader, so really, top marks on everything.”

Mr. Armour said for a party that is good at “infighting and divisions, going to our separate corners and coming out fighting,” Ms. Ambrose succeeded in uniting it after the defeat in the 2015 election.

“The fact that through Rona’s time as leader, the party is in even better shape than we were going in [to the last election] is a huge accomplishment,” Mr. Armour said.

Ms. Ambrose has been in federal politics for 13 years. She was first elected in 2004 to represent the riding of Edmonton-Spruce Grove, Alta.

“I ran against almost a dozen people … I had no political experience and no name recognition,” Ms. Ambrose told The Hill Times’ magazine Power & Influence in a 2016 interview. “It was a huge upset and no one expected that I would win.”

In 2006, she was made the youngest female member of cabinet at the age of 36, and over her tenure held the most portfolios—nine in total, she noted—of anyone in the Harper-era government.

In the 2016 interview with P&I, she also acknowledged that she was a “terrible politician” in her first file as environment minister.

“I did not know how to handle myself in the media, I didn’t know how to really do well in the House of Commons,” she said. But she learned.

In 2015, Ms. Ambrose was elected interim leader, beating out six other candidates, to become the official challenger to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons during Question Period.

‘She did everything that she said that she wanted to do,’ Conservative Senator Denise Batters said of Ms. Ambrose. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“It’s been a long time, 13 years as an elected public servant. And the leadership of the party has just taken off, and she did everything that she said that she wanted to do … it was a bit in flux after we lost the election,” said Conservative Senator Denise Batters, who was in the room for Ms. Ambrose’s remarks on Tuesday morning.

“She was able to keep that together, give our party really a new tone,” said Sen. Batters. “She just always has the perfect tone. She says the right things at the right times and that’s because it comes from the heart. That’s what she really believes. She’s a partisan but she can do it with a smile.”

Former Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton was also at Ms. Ambrose’s speech, as was Kory Teneycke, former director of communications to prime minister Stephen Harper, who said he thinks that all current Conservative leadership candidates would agree with Ms. Ambrose’s vision of the direction the party should take.

“I think all of the leadership candidates would agree with the sentiments she expressed, but I guess we’ll see in the next two weeks,” he said.

Conservatives are set to elect their new permanent leader on Saturday, May 27 in Toronto.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, former prime minister Stephen Harper said Ms. Ambrose’s leadership of the party “set a high bar for those who will follow.”

In the 2016 interview with P&I, Ms. Ambrose said she found it fitting to exit her political career as the opposition since that’s where she started back in 2004. “I just wanted to work hard, do policy, be a team player. And I have done all of those things and it has led to leadership,” she said. “I am privileged to have been elected to this position. It’s very cool.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Ambrose was celebrated by her colleagues in the House, and her her parents and two brothers were in the viewing gallery above the Commons to watch.

Mr. Trudeau, outgoing NDP leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.), a representative from the Bloc Québécois, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) all gave tributes to Ms. Ambrose, speaking about her contributions to the Commons, her humility, and her strong performance as official opposition leader.

Ms. Bergen, as Conservative House leader was the first to give remarks, saying that Ms. Ambrose “gave everything to the role.”  Throughout the kind words spoken from all sides of the aisle, the Conservative caucus rose to their feet a number of times.

During his remarks, Mr. Trudeau said Ms. Ambrose confidently owned the job of official opposition leader and that her work as a Parliamentarian will stand the test of time.

Ms. Ambrose then addressed the Commons, saying it has been the privilege of a lifetime to be interim leader while thanking many people, and ended her remarks with the reminder that she intends to continue her role as MP until the House rises for the summer.

The Hill Times 

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