COMMENTARY: Next Conservative leader should channel their inner Ambrose
After 13 years in politics, Rona Ambrose decided to call it quits this week. Having served in several cabinet positions under former prime minister Stephen Harper, Ambrose was just what the Conservatives needed in an interim leader.
After coming off an election where the party seemingly rejected all prior advice on how to win a majority, Ambrose was faced with a double challenge — keeping the party alive and effective as an opposition party, and leaving it well placed to contest future campaigns. She certainly succeeded on the first front and did her best on the second. She can leave with her head held high.
COMMENTARY: Ambrose steps aside, for now?
The first noticeable difference was entirely one of tone and style. Ambrose had a sense of humour, played beer pong and actually showed up to the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner. This wasn’t your father’s Conservative party anymore, but it might be your mom’s, and that matters more than you think.
Despite having high-profile women in the Conservative caucus like Ambrose, Michelle Rempel and Lisa Raitt, the Conservatives continue to struggle with the female vote. As Aaron Wherry noted recently for the CBC, female voters prefer the Liberals over the Conservatives by more than a two to one ratio.
When Ambrose stated that she was a feminist in an interview with Chatelaine, it was a welcome deviation from the right’s knee-jerk reaction to shun a movement that is merely seeking to establish the equality of men and women. The next leader of the Conservatives might not be prepared or equipped to capitalize on being able to appeal to female voters in the same way Ambrose was, but they should try. They can’t win if they don’t.
Ambrose was not what progressives think of when it comes to Conservative politicians: she holds a graduate degree in gender studies and spent much of her early career volunteering at a sexual assault centre and women’s shelters. Ambrose made a few questionable moves while serving as a cabinet minister under Harper, it’s true. But once she was free to set her own agenda, her real passions shone through the usual partisan haze.
Ambrose’s last legislative act as a parliamentarian was to introduce a private member’s bill that will ultimately ensure that new judges will be required to be proficient in sexual assault law.
While critics are right to point out that the systemic issues sexual assault victims face in an adversarial criminal justice system aren’t simply going to disappear overnight because of this bill, and there are some valid concerns about how this may impact the principle of judicial independence, it’s worth noting that it is virtually inconceivable to think of a male leader of the Tories putting forth a private member’s bill of this nature.
This is a welcome change from the tone of the previous government; consider, for instance, when Peter MacKay refused to acknowledge that the Montreal massacre was expressly about women, despite the shooter carefully selecting women, leaving an anti-feminist manifesto behind, and also shouting during the attack that he was angry at feminists.
Indeed, one of Ambrose’s true lasting legacies in the House will be the fact that she demonstrated just how a female politician can openly embrace the feminist label and still manage to lead a unified and effective Conservative party.
No matter who wins the Conservative leadership race, now is the time for conservatives to step up and think about what it would mean to be able to combat some of the issues facing women. Why would calling out blatant sexism and misogyny be something that the progressive left should have a monopoly on?
I don’t think Conservatives are inherently opposed to seeing women getting paid the same as their male colleagues for the same work, or seeing women being represented fairly in the media or speaking out against sexualized violence. Likewise, I don’t think women become impervious to the daily tribulations of womanhood simply because they also care about conservative causes.
Women make up half of the population, and we show up to vote. Ambrose clearly knew that. If you’re a Conservative voter, you should hope the next one does, too.
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