On Wednesday, Alberta MP Rob Merrifield announced he was resigning his seat to serve as Alberta's envoy to Washington. Mr. Merrifield was a key representative in Washington for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, including in the push for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and says the new job will be a continuation of that work. He spoke with The Globe and Mail about his recruitment, political leanings, Alison Redford and what it will take to get the pipeline approved.
Q: Why take this job?
A: It's really a continuation of what I've been doing for the Prime Minister. I've been down in Washington dealing with the legislative arm of the U.S. government, so I'm not reinventing the wheel. This is something I can apply 100 per cent of my time and effort into. I'm a long way down the road on this one, and I believe I'll have the opportunity under the leadership of Jim Prentice to do things in this position that have never been tried before and I'm looking forward to the challenge.
Q: Like what?
A: My relationships are a little different. They see me as a peer in congress, as chair of [the parliamentary committee for] international trade. My relationships are very strong not only in DC but throughout… This is not new to me. This is just something I can apply 100 per cent of my time and effort into. And I'm pretty excited about it. I'd never take being a member of parliament for granted, it's been a tremendous privilege, but this will allow me to represent the province that I love, and the riding, just in a different way.
Q: You'd already registered to run again [in 2015], you've been confirmed as a nominee. So clearly you weren't always planning to leave.
A: No, I haven't. In fact, this came together in the last week. Jim Prentice and I casually chatted over the summer a little bit, but nothing's done until it's done in politics. And whether he was going to win or not, whether this would materialize or not – so this really has come together in the last four, five days. And I'm privileged to accept the position and move forward.
Q: Was there any push factor here [from federal politics], or was it all pull factor?
A: No, it's all pull factor.
Q: There's about 20 of you [Conservative incumbent MPs] not running again.
A: Oh yeah, but to be honest over the summer I've been getting more and more traction on the role the Prime Minister's given me, and as that traction was getting stronger it was very, very difficult to leave the position…. Foreign Affairs was getting more and more on board with my role, how they could use me in effective ways. So this was not an easy decision. And it certainly wasn't because I was pushed in any way. Just the lure of being able to put 100 per cent of my effort into this, something I think I should be doing at this time.
Q: I'll ask this as delicately as possible: I heard your name thrown around as one of the more Wildrose-leaning MPs.
A: Well, you know, I'll tell you where I'm at with the province. The PC party lost its trust with Albertans, and I believe if anyone can bring that trust back, it's Jim Prentice. I know Jim very well. I was in charge of infrastructure in Alberta when he was regional minister, so we worked very closely in cabinet as cabinet colleagues. He actually grew up in Yellowhead, so he's one of our own… So when it comes to Jim Prentice as a leader, he gets 100 per cent of my trust and confidence. Does he have a big job to do? Absolutely, and he recognizes that. So I'm not so keen whether I'm dubbed Wildrose and PC. I'm more concerned about the province and its leadership and where we go from here. And I believe Jim Prentice can lead the province, turn it around and regain that trust.
Q: His presence in the premier's office made a pretty big difference.
A: An extremely big difference.
Q: Would you have taken this job if Alison Redford offered it to you?
Q: Have you talked to David Manning, the outgoing Washington envoy?
A: I haven't. Over the years, I've talked to him when I was down there. My contacts, the way I'm perceived in Washington, is different than him. The transition will be fluid. I don't have anything negative to say about David at all. It's just that my skillsets and title and approach to politics is much different, because he comes from a different background than mine. But it's going to be, I believe, a very exciting two years ahead as we do the very best job that I know how to deal with U.S.-Canada issues, particularly for Alberta.
Q: Do you think the Conservatives federally can win re-election?
A: Absolutely. There's no hesitation in that at all, that was not even a factor. I believe our Prime Minister is a phenomenal leader, a gifted leader. And there's absolutely no hesitation from my perspective that we will win the next election as Canadians really take a sober look at how volatile the world is, how well-positioned we are as a country…. I have absolute, total trust in the Canadian electorate that when they look at the ballot box next year, that they'll return the Conservative Party to power.
Q: What will it take to get Keystone XL approved?
A: Two things. Three more votes in the Senate…
Q: Three? Not four or two?
A: Three [Democrats]. We're only three short. And it will take a potential – which is devastating - Lac-Mégantic experience in America. [That] would tip it and the Democrats would have no choice and would bail on the President on this one. We're encouraging [pipeline approval]. We hope the president will assess this and feel the pressure and understand this is in the best interest of America to approve Keystone. So we'll keep making our case.
Q: But your job isn't just Keystone.
A: It's not just Keystone. Country of origin labelling, Buy America, thinning the border – all of the issues I've been dealing with nationally also relate to Alberta. So, like I said, this is not a great shift. It's a shifting of gears in the intensity and amount of time I'll be able to put. It was about 50 per cent of my time with the U.S. file as-is. This just allows me to go 100 per cent.
Q: And frees up some other eager person to do the constituency work of an MP.
A: That's right, I don't have to sit in the House of Commons on duty.
Q: Would you stay in this role if there's a change of government in Alberta? Too soon to say?
A: Oh, yeah, that's really hard to say.
Q: …just given that flavours change. Mr. Manning, Mr. [Gary] Mar [Alberta's outgoing envoys in Washington and Asia] will tell you about that.
A: I'm committed to Jim Prentice as leader of the province, and I believe that he can lead the province properly. So, you know, I wouldn't even want to answer that at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.