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Rona Ambrose on guilt, reconnecting with friends and life after politics

The former interim Conservative leader looks back on her 13 years in the party, and ahead to her next chapter.

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rona ambrose

Photo, Justin Tang/CP

When the House of Commons shuts down for the summer, longtime Conservative MP and former interim party leader Rona Ambrose will walk away from her political career (for good, she says). It’s been 13 years since Ambrose beat out a slew of establishment candidates to win the Conservative party nomination for the riding of Edmonton-Spruce Grove in 2004. A member of Stephen Harper’s cabinet during his decade in power, Ambrose stepped in as interim leader after the Conservatives’ crushing loss in the 2015 election. As she now prepares for summer vacation and a fellowship at the Wilson Center think tank in D.C where she’ll focus on Canada-U.S. trade relations, Ambrose spoke with Chatelaine about her new gig, the new party leader and the one pursuit she refuses to quit.

You’re just weeks now from leaving politics — do you feel like a kid counting down to the last day of school?

Kind of! It’s nice to have the pressure taken off me and to be back in my office and working on things, like getting the JUST Act bill through the Senate. I had a really fun time this morning taking the bus to work because I don’t have a driver anymore.

What’s been on your mind?

I’m thinking about next steps: I’m only 48, so when I started to think about where I want to go next, I decided I wanted a whole new kind of career in the private sector. There are obviously many transferrable skills and I bring a lot of experience, but I think it’ll be really different and exciting.

About the Conservative leadership race that just ended — had you run, and won, as many think you would have, we’d have a woman Conservative party leader going into the next election in 2019…

There is a sense of guilt I feel when women say to me, “Oh my gosh, you let me down, you let us down.” People will literally say that kind of thing to me as I’m walking through the airport. So yeah, I feel that sometimes. I take it as a compliment, but I did make the right decision for me. As a woman, though, I understand. It’s important to have women in those roles and that’s why one of the pieces of advice I gave [new Conservative party leader] Andrew Scheer when we sat down was to continue to support the really great women we have in our caucus, and promote the new ones going forward so they can get more experience as time goes on.

But will he really follow through? I heard zero from him about women during his leadership campaign.

I think we have to give him a chance to lay out his vision. But the truth is these issues matter to our caucus, we’ve shown that clearly.

Why do you think women haven’t been voting Conservative? The party really needs them to do so in 2019.

There have been times in our party when we had no gender gap [in terms of support from women voters] and other times when there has been one, and we have to say “why is that?” A lot of times it’s about reaching out to people, it’s about being relatable on issues. We talk a lot about families and the economy and that is incredibly relatable to women who are trying to hold down a job and pay the bills at home and take care of their families. I also think representation is important. Seeing women in your party matters and we have to ask more women to get involved in the Conservative party.

You’re saying the Conservatives could do a better job of outreach to women, then?

I think at the end of the day it’s about what we talk about and who’s saying it. Andrew is a very relatable guy, he’s a family guy with five kids. Lots of parents can relate to that, lots of moms can relate to that. I think he needs to stay authentic and talk about the things that matter to him as a young family man. There are also a lot of women out there who are active in their community, and I don’t mean activists. It’s really important as Conservatives that we talk about the compassion in our communities and why these things matter to us.

What are your specific plans to help get more women into Conservative politics?

I’ve committed to helping the party with that and we’re going to talk about what that looks like. When I was leader, if I saw women I thought had potential, I would sit down and spend time talking about what it takes to run. I’ll keep doing that.

Is there one piece of advice you give these women?

I tell them it’s a big commitment, but you just don’t understand until you’re here, so it’s hard to explain. What I try to do is build confidence, because inevitably every single woman I meet has what it takes but doesn’t believe it. Every single time. If you ask a man to run, he’ll say “where, when, how?” And if you ask a woman to run, you can ask them five times and they’ll explain to you, “Well, I need to go get my MBA first,” and I’ll say “But why?” If you’re telling me you’re passionate about homelessness and this is why you want to come to Ottawa and fight, then that’s what you need to do — come to Ottawa and fight.

What’s one thing you’re most looking forward to about life after politics?

Some semblance of routine… and peace for myself, for my family and my friends who are excited to actually see me again after 13 years. One of the things I really miss is my girlfriends — and they’ve hung in there. So there are going to be some spa weekends. My partner [J.P. Veitch] and I will be settling in Calgary, where the mountains are close. We love to hike.

What about horseback riding? 

I had a horse and then had to get rid of it after two years in politics — I thought I’d have time to ride it! When I was thinking about what to do next, [J.P.] would say to me, “Well, as soon as you retire you can have a horse and a dog.” So I’m looking forward to having a horse and a dog and a routine and a life. It’s gonna be great.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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