News / Canada

Rona Ambrose's star rises in government

OTTAWA - Rona Ambrose listens intently as a gaggle of Girl Guides show her their sashes and explain their badges.

"You're a pathfinder," says the minister for the status of women, correctly identifying an older teenager wearing the green of guiding's upper ranks. Inside the school gym, the Guides gravitate to Ambrose, who, in a pair of funky olive-coloured heels, is still shorter than some of the girls.

This is the flip-side to Ambrose's ministerial life — her alternate universe as Public Works minister looks more like a recent military trade show in Ottawa: overwhelmingly male, the badges on military uniforms rather than sashes and the dollar figures staggering compared to a modest funding announcement for the International Day of the Girl.

In both portfolios, Ambrose is capturing attention as a no-nonsense doer, with little baggage and an even-handed tone. Her star is rising in government, although the ascent has been slower than that of some of her male colleagues.

Even opposition politicians tip their hat to Ambrose's work ethic and sincerity — although some emphasize she has yet to deliver substantive change at Public Works.

Ambrose is now effectively in charge of one of the toughest files in government, the F-35 fighter jet purchase. Public Works oversees the new secretariat managing the purchase and trying to bring transparency to the process.

Compared to her colleagues at National Defence, Peter MacKay and Julian Fantino, she has emerged fairly unscathed from the controversy over the jets.

"She brings a lot of credibility to these files," said one defence industry source. "She's seen as pretty squeaky clean."

Ambrose is said to have gone back to cabinet a half-dozen times to push for an independent procurement process for new shipbuilding contracts, a move lauded all around as a refreshing change.

She rapidly requested a special audit of controversial expenses at the Old Port of Montreal last month.

And Ambrose has promised to speed up the snail-slow contracting process inside her department. She vented her frustrations recently at the military trade show.

"Frankly, when it comes to procurement, I'm a little tired of being told why something can't be done," she fumed to the crowd. "I'm also tired of being told I can only get partial buy-in for new ideas because people would rather see things fail first."

That candid assessment was welcomed inside the procurement world, where people have long complained there is too much red tape and too many delays in the contracting system.

One veteran procurement consultant said Ambrose is viewed as "genuine" in her attempts to remould the process and is seen as more accessible to industry than her predecessors.

At the same time, Ambrose keeps a curiously low media profile for someone of her rank and experience — doing few interviews and rarely running the gauntlet of reporters outside the House of Commons after question period. When she does appear, she sticks closely to script.

NDP Public Works critic Linda Duncan says Ambrose is a hard worker, but the jury is still out on whether she will actually live up to commitments — including job creation linked to major government contracts. The shipbuilding strategy is already facing delays in getting work underway.

Duncan also points out that the Auditor General criticized Public Works for signing off on the F-35 sole source contract without the necessary documentation and analysis. The new plan to review the purchase still revolves around the F-35, rather than contemplating an open competition.

"I think there's no doubt at all she's dedicated to her file, I think the F-35 fiasco is raising questions of how seriously she's taken in cabinet," says Duncan, who, like Ambrose, represents an Edmonton riding.

"It looks like she was just told to 'just sign this.' It's not clear how much of a briefing she got...That suggests to me there was severe pressure on her."

That criticism is a familiar one.

When Harper first came to power in 2006, he appointed Ambrose to the Environment file — then one of the hottest issues going. His office then proceeded to meddle mercilessly in her portfolio, even down to her choice of staff. But she bore the withering criticism for the lack of substantive policy on climate change. Some Conservatives wondered at the time if she was standing up enough for herself in cabinet.

Ambrose was shuffled into the virtually invisible intergovernmental affairs portfolio after only eight months.

But the 43-year-old, quadrilingual minister (she speaks Portuguese and Spanish as well as French and English) has made her way — quietly, without much splash in the media and without the sharply partisan edge of some of her colleagues.

Ambrose has also escaped criticism over the last six years in cabinet for ethical breaches, conflicts of interest or pork barrelling —the type of clean slate that Prime Minister Stephen Harper values but has found difficult to come by.

She also has charge of western economic diversification and gained the status of women file after the ouster of former colleague Helena Guergis from cabinet and caucus in 2010. The latter portfolio can be a bit of a dead zone for attention, but Ambrose has managed to run with some projects.

Last year, she successfully lobbied inside the Commons and then on the diplomatic circuit for the declaration of the International Day of the Girl. The UN passed the Canadian-backed resolution in December.

Rosemary McCarney, president of Plan Canada, says Ambrose became convinced of the merit of such a day when she sat down at the United Nations to meet a group of girls from around the world.

"From the time she left that meeting with those kids, she just went at this issue, she was just a force to be reckoned with," McCarney recalls.

McCarney, who calls herself a "big fan" of Ambrose's, recalls a high-level diplomatic reception last September where the minister pushed for the declaration.

"She just went into this roomful of UN ambassadors, mostly men, 99 per cent men, and you know how petite she is...she just worked that room," said McCarney.

"I don't think they knew what hit them. She was just a force. You can just see her know her file, take a deep breath, and plunge."

Liberal MP Judy Sgro, the party's status of women critic, has nothing but good things to say about Ambrose — calling her one of the best ministers the Conservative government has.

"Every time the government seems to get in trouble, they'll put her up, because she actually attempts to answer the questions...She doesn't politicize everything she does, she's quite sincere in her work as minister of status of women," said Sgro.

"She actually knows her files and speaks to the files directly in a way that I think is refreshing and great to work with."