Politics

Conservatives meet in Halifax to begin 'performance review' of Trudeau's Liberals

With nowhere to go but up in Atlantic Canada, Conservative MPs and senators are gathering in Halifax for two days of caucus meetings to prepare for next week's return of Parliament.

'Atlantic Canada is taken for granted by the Liberals,' Tories say as prep work begins for fall sitting

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose tells her caucus in Halifax about outside forces who want to separate the party into different camps during their leadership race. 1:12

With nowhere to go but up in Atlantic Canada, Conservative MPs and senators are gathering in Halifax for two days of caucus meetings to prepare for next week's return of Parliament.

Interim leader Rona Ambrose entered the room Tuesday morning to a standing ovation from her team.

"Everywhere I went this summer," she said, "the feedback I got was the same: we like what you guys are doing and we want to see more of it."

The party's political comeback from the "goose egg" of Tory seats the region returned in last fall's federal election must now happen without Nova Scotia's favourite political son. Peter MacKay announced late Monday he won't be returning to political life to seek the party's now vacant leadership.

With MacKay out, other contenders can use the meetings today and tomorrow to reach out to potential donors and supporters in the region — essential work the party has to do as well, to compensate for its lack of regional MPs.

A $100-per-ticket party fundraiser is set for Halifax Tuesday night, featuring Ambrose as well as a who's who of leadership contenders and pretenders seeking to make inroads in the now wide-open field.

"We are here for a reason," Ambrose said in her opening remarks. "We're here to earn back the confidence of Atlantic Canadians," citing good-paying jobs, Atlantic Canada's seat on the Supreme Court, and the Energy East pipeline on a list of things her party would be fighting for this fall.

'A job is a job'

"The economy is in trouble," the interim leader said, sampling recent business news headlines, but "what is Justin Trudeau's priority?"

Vacation selfies, a few of her MPs called out from the crowd.

"That's not what I was going to say," she joked.

"Finding new ways to spend your money and raise your taxes," she continued, vowing that her party would be the voice of "ordinary working people."

"We need to stand up for all job creators," she said later in her speech. "A job is a job whether it's fashionable or not," she said, a line that brought the room to its feet.

Peter MacKay's decision to stay out of the federal Conservative leadership race, coupled with his former cabinet colleague Jason Kenney's decision to jump to provincial politics in Alberta, has left the field to replace Stephen Harper wide open. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"The challenges we face here are different," said defeated Nova Scotia MP Scott Armstrong, who was asked to serve as the party's Atlantic Canada critic despite no longer having a seat.

Armstrong said the region's unique employment challenges are an example of why the former government's focus on local economic stimulus through things like its shipbuilding strategy was so important.

A group of up to 50 parliamentarians are set to tour Irving Shipyards on Thursday to learn more about the work Stephen Harper's former government set in motion to not only equip the military but revive the industry.

Several of the party's critics have other local tours and meetings planned this week to learn more about local industries and First Nations.

Cultivating the East

The caucus's roots in the region range from rather deep — Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs's grandmother was the mayor of Dartmouth, N.S., in the '70s — to non-existent, in the case of Ontario rookie MP Alex Nuttall, who said he'd never been to the Maritimes.

The caucus includes about a dozen Atlantic senators. Ambrose thanked them for their work while the Tories were "short-handed" in the Commons.

Former cabinet minister and possible leadership contender Erin O'Toole, who has personal and professional ties to Atlantic Canada despite representing an Ontario riding, said the decision to meet here was unanimous among his colleagues.

'I've had many people in my riding saying 'tell [ Trudeau ] to put his shirt back on.' - MP Karen Vecchio

"Lisa [Raitt] lobbied hard for Sydney," O'Toole said. (Raitt is originally from — and last week returned to get married in — Cape Breton.)

But being in a regional hub like Halifax allows MPs to meet more local players, including Progressive Conservative leaders from all four Atlantic provinces, who will join a roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon on Eastern Canada's political and economic landscape. 

Conservatives don't govern provincially anywhere in the region. While the federal and provincial parties haven't always collaborated, Ambrose said Tuesday she's "proud to stand alongside them."

"Atlantic Canada is taken for granted by the Liberals quite regularly," O'Toole said, citing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision not to have one of his Atlantic MPs serve as minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency as evidence.

After Jean Chrétien's Liberals swept the region in 1993, the dominance didn't last, he noted, with more NDP and Progressive Conservative MPs elected in 1997. Conservatives hope that history repeats.

Conservative finance critic Lisa Raitt says her party is set to begin performance reviews for Justin Trudeau's cabinet, as the one-year mark approaches since the Liberal government was elected. (CBC)

"We're here to help," Raitt said. "We're Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, not just the opposition from the other 98 or 99 constituencies," she said, referring to the Conservative election result in other parts of Canada.

Performance review time

One year on from their election defeat, Conservatives have struggled to put a dent in the popularity of the Trudeau government. But they believe the way to start doing that is to critique the cabinet's performance.

"If there's one benefit that came out of making these mandate letters of the ministers public, it's that now we can measure against them," Raitt said.

Work begins this week to figure out how to capitalize when questions start about whether Liberals have kept their promises.

"Spoiler alert: I don't think they have," she said. "But it's for us to document, show and discuss with the Canadian public."

Michael Chong, one of the earliest candidates to enter the federal Conservative leadership race, was in Newfoundland and Labrador Monday. He's one of several hopefuls using the Halifax caucus meeting to make a push for support in the region now Peter MacKay's out. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"We've seen a prime minister who's been out in the public for the last 3½ months, but hasn't been doing any policy, work," the Southwestern Ontario MP Karen Vecchio said.

"I've had many people in my riding saying, 'Tell him to put his shirt back on. He's acting like a Kardashian.'"

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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