The Conservatives begin 2016 in a very different place from where they have been for the last 10 years. Defeats are never fun, but they offer the Conservatives a chance to rejuvenate, rebuild and rededicate themselves to promoting Canadian Conservative values. Forget about American, Australian and British values, focus on Canadian values. Defeat offers a chance to reconnect with Canadians, with supporters and with those that drifted or were tossed away over the last 10 years.
The first step is stop the moaning and groaning about losing. Get over it. It happened now move on and build the best damn opposition party we have seen. Every party member, every voter, every reporter has an opinion on why we lost. No amount of discussion and hand-wringing will change their minds, so it is now time to look ahead. You have just four years to complete the cycle from opposition party to government-in-waiting and that is not as much time as one might think.
Step two is a house cleaning. Opposition demands a very different skill set from government. Top notch government staffers do not necessarily make good opposition staffers. A different mindset is needed, a different work ethic, a different approach to doing politics, including a realization that the days of top government salaries are a thing of the past. Attracting the best with a lot less to offer them is essential. Talk to those who have been there before. Yaroslav Baran for instance had some excellent comments in the media the other day. See if there are any former staff who will come back. If necessary bring in someone who will be impartial and do the house cleaning for you.
This will mean tough decisions as to who is kept and who is let go. Every person has to be evaluated and the criteria has to be how good is their opposition mind set and what skills do they bring to opposition. Can they look at an issue and see how to develop it into not just one or two days in Question Period, but exploit it. Can they even recognize an issue to develop?
You don’t need a research staff full of policy wonks that is now the task of your critics. The critics will be on the front lines meeting people, talking to experts, attending committee. It is now up to the critics to hire the right staff for their MPs office. They can’t rely on others (such as the research group or the OLO) to do their homework for them. They don’t need speech writers; they can write their own or have someone on their MP staff write speeches for them.
Step three has already been partially completed IE. talk to those who have been there before. Ambrose has already spoken to former Conservative leaders and received advice from them, part of which was to focus on Question Period. In his prime, Joe Clark was one of the best opposition questioners the House of Commons has seen. Mulroney can offer advice on a wide range of issues including the strategy for going forward. Ambrose needs to soak up all of the advice, decide what she wants to do and just go for it.
By now the budget should have been finalized and staff in place. Opposition researchers should already be looking at every new minister and Liberal promises. They should already have identified weaknesses and items or ministers to attack.
Step four, stop obsessing over Trudeau. He beat you, move on. There is no point in thinking you are going to take him down any time soon. Too many in the media are still wrapped up in him, his family and his “sunny way” approach. That will change, but it takes time. You have to play the long game.
Watch for issues that allow you to chip away at his image, at his leadership and his tenure as Prime Minister. Chip away at his credibility by targeting his ministers. He appointed them, their performance reflects on him.
We have already seen that touch of Liberal arrogance on the democratic reform front, the touch of entitlement with the nanny issue, and the first incompetence on the refugee issue with their constantly changing story line. For those that were around back then, we can remember the original Trudeau mania and how it culminated a few years later in the Salmon Arm salute. It takes time for a leader to fall from grace, play the long game.
Ambrose needs to stop talking about being nice to potential leadership candidates. It is impossible to say that you will promote them in Question Period or in the House or that you will give them lots of exposure because at this point we don’t know who they will be. There could be candidates who are not part of the caucus and Ambrose risks being accused of offering caucus members an unfair advantage. Better to wait and see the final list and in the meantime prepare for a Liberal type scenario where leadership candidates who are critics have to resign from the their critics responsibilities.
That will mean losing some on your front benches. Who will replace them? Begin cycling new MPs through Question Period, looking for those who have a natural ability as questioners and who are able to handle the media as well. Because for all those months that the leadership contest will be on, these new MPs will be the face of the party four days a week in the House.
Last but not least, step five is have fun again. Much of the fun side of the political process went out the door ten years ago. Bring it back. I spent ten years in Opposition, it is an exciting place to be. It is challenging but also very rewarding. Do your job, do it well and offer Canadians a different option to what they have now.