Politics·Analysis

How Conservatives spent Parliament's summer break

Policy roundtables aren't most people's idea of summer R&R. But Conservatives have done a lot of listening this summer, as part of their rebuilding phase.

Tory MPs hit the road for consultations and take the pulse back home

MP Shannon Stubbs (left) stopped in to see her former boss, friend and political mentor Deb Grey in Qualicum Beach, B.C., last month. It was a rare vacation road trip for the rookie MP, who represents the Alberta riding where Grey was first elected. (Shannon Stubbs)

Conservatives spent the summer of 2015 fighting for their governing lives — and losing.

With the next shot at electoral redemption three years out, and months before they decide on a new leader, Tories could have taken this summer to relax, renew and regroup.

Or not.

"I only got my boat on the water once, just to make sure it was running well," said Manitoba MP James Bezan, lamenting fitting in a mere half-day of fishing.

Instead, the national defence critic toured military bases and led his caucus through 40 consultations across Canada in order to submit Conservative ideas to the government's ongoing defence review.

His final report isn't quite ready for release. But he'll be briefing colleagues this week as the Conservative caucus meets in Halifax to prepare for the fall sitting of Parliament that starts Sept. 19.

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"The one thing that the government seems obsessed with is peacekeeping," he said. But among people the Tories consulted, "that ranked very low on the priority list."

Justin Trudeau's Liberals have been criticized for having "consultation constipation," with key decisions on hot files on hold, pending policy reviews.

But consultations, roundtables and town halls have figured prominently in the summers of opposition MPs too, as the party rebrands itself to take on Trudeau.

Time to measure

Alex Nuttall, the critic for economic development in Southern Ontario and "the new sharing economy" (think: Uber, Airbnb), was also touring.

He heard that economic uncertainty is holding back hiring, while businesses wait to see what new Canada Pension Plan changes, carbon pricing or infrastructure decisions will mean.

"We're far enough away from the election now that we can start to see the results of the current government's decisions, as well as the previous government's," said the rookie MP for Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte. 

For example, he's been looking at how many student summer jobs were created by the $300 million budgeted by the Liberal government for the student summer jobs program.  

The challenge now is communicating why Conservative policies will work while the Liberal policies don't have the desired effect, he says.

Ready to run?

The Conservative leadership race was pretty sleepy for most of the summer.

But high-profile ex-cabinet ministers, as well as former House Speaker Andrew Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP, may have spent a few long, summer nights awake, trying to decide whether to jump in.

"I have made a decision," Milton, Ont., MP Lisa Raitt told CBC News last Friday. But first, she had a full summer with her family, including getting married right before her kids went back to school.

She's said she'll play a role in the race. She won't confirm whether that means she'll be a candidate.

Ontario MP Erin O'Toole's summer ended with a different answer to the leadership question than it began: in June he'd ruled himself out. 

But then Jason Kenney decided to run for provincal leader in Alberta. His caucus colleagues started calling. Now he's reconsidering.

"People will always say really nice things when they want you to enter the race, but will that lead to some sweat equity?" he said. Fundraising under the current rules isn't easy.

"I don't embark on a mission without planning," the former AIr Force officer and veterans affairs minister said.

Hitting the road

Amateur sports critic Robert Kitchen did a series of videos on social media featuring him trying out Olympic sports, in a summer project to convey support for Canada's Olympians.

The rural equivalent of summer door-knocking in his large Saskatchewan riding (43,000 sq km) means a lot of driving.

"With the downturn in the economy that we've had here, to me it's important that I'm there, as opposed to them trying to find me and coming to my office," he said. 

Despite the budget's fanfare over billions for infrastructure spending, nothing's made its way to his constituency yet, he said. 

In rural Alberta, MP Shannon Stubbs found the same: her municipalities also missed this year's construction season, at a time when jobs are needed to replace energy sector layoffs.

Many in her riding are "quite alarmed" with what's going on with the Energy East hearings, she said, looking to MPs like her to make the case for energy development. 

She did take a road trip vacation in early August with her husband. Still a newlywed when she was elected, it's been a challenge to adjust to a cross-country commute.

"It was nice to be able to have that time... to reconnect personally," she said. But: "I feel guilty about it, taking time away, especially with all the pressures in my constituency and the challenges that the people I represent are facing."

Until this summer, Edmonton MP Ziad Aboultaif (centre) had been too busy with his business and last year's election to visit friends and family in Lebanon, where he was born. While his trip was mostly personal, he met with several Lebanese political figures, including former prime minister Saad Hariri (right.) Canada's ambassador in Beirut, Michelle Cameron, is on the left. (Ministry of Information, Lebanon)

Liberal assignment

All MPs were sent home with summer homework: hold a "dialogue on Canadian federal election reform" and report back.

Did Tories — who want a referendum, not just roundtables, on whether to change the voting system — co-operate?

Some have. Or will, before the October deadline. But not without skepticism, arguing that, save for a few diehards, Canadians aren't as interested in this issue as, say, the economy. 

"I take my assignments from my constituents, not from the government," said Edmonton MP Garnett Genuis. (Nevertheless, he helped promote an Edmonton event last weekend.)

Karen Vecchio's sharing an electoral reform event with the two Liberals and one New Democrat who also represent London, Ont., ridings. 

But the social development critic spent more time this summer talking about things like housing, jobs and defence issues. 

Other than one 22-hour trip to Toronto for dinner and a baseball game, she's not really taken a break, she said.

"Being in my first year, this is where I have to root myself."  

Fellow rookie Genuis, who has a young family, took the same approach to his summer, enjoying "deeper conversations" on issues close to home.

Although he had some MP-related international travel, "for me, a vacation is staying at home and not getting on a plane."

About the Author

Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca

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