EDMONTON – The Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race is the home stretch and frontrunner Jason Kenney says he’s still running like he’s 10 votes behind, but he’s also looking past voting day.
“I’m (now) on a month-long tour around the province to meet with as many elected PC delegates as I can,” said Kenney in an interview.
“(It’s) just to strengthen my relationship with people who have been elected, make sure they are registered to vote and for those who are still undecided answer any questions that they’ve got.
“I’m trying to make a deliberate effort to reach out to people who aren’t supporting my candidacy to begin the important work of uniting the party post March 18.”
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Delegates will convene in Calgary on March 18th to select their first permanent leader since Jim Prentice announced he was quitting the night the Tories’ four-decade dynasty ended in a crushing election loss to Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP on May 5, 2015.
Voting to select delegates in all 87 constituencies wraps up Monday, and more than 1,000 delegates have already been selected.
Kenney has said his plan is to wind up the PC party, seek a dissolution of the fellow right-centre Wildrose party and create a new conservative coalition. This week, his campaign team said dissolution of the PCs is the best option but not the only one.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean stated late last month that he is open to such a merger, but under a Wildrose party framework. He is now meeting with members and Albertans across the province to gauge support for it, and has said he will run to be leader of the new entity.
Kenney’s plan has divided the PC party, which voted last spring to not merge but to rejuvenate.
Kenney’s two opponents, legislature member Richard Starke and Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson, are running to not merge but to rebuild the party. Starke, however, has said he would be open to some type of partnership with Wildrose, but hasn’t said what that would look like.
Neither could be reached for comment.
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There has been friction and outright hostility to Kenney’s plan. Three leadership contenders – Sandra Jansen, Stephen Khan, and Donna Kennedy-Glans – have quit the race, saying the party is moving away from progressivism to the Wildrose brand of social conservatism.
Jansen has since crossed over to sit in Notley’s caucus.
In the last week, the party has rejected a motion by party member Jeffrey Rath to disqualify Kenney on the grounds he is breaking party rules by threatening to do harm to the party by disbanding it.
Just days after that, the party again rejected a bid by a member of the board of directors to revisit that decision.
Party president Katherine O’Neill, in a statement issued last week, said the issue is settled and is in hands of the members.
“We need their voice to be heard,” said O’Neill.
Kenney, a cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, has been stumping since last July for the PC leader job and estimates more than 80 per cent of delegates are committed to his team.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said the last-minute efforts to expel Kenney, along with other factors, suggest Kenney’s math is correct.
“Jason Kenney has been very clear about this, that his goal is to win the leadership of the party and end the party, and he’s going to win on the first ballot,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
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Bratt said that despite the fact there are a lot of question marks on upcoming negotiations with the Wildrose, he has no doubt that by the summer there will be one single conservative party.
Bratt said the critical issue is when Kenney leads, who will follow.
Some progressive members are now saying publicly they will quit a Kenney-led party and look elsewhere.
“Do (the progressives) hold their nose and stay in this larger party as a rump group, or do they join with the NDP in essentially a two-party system in Alberta?” Bratt asked.
“Or do they try to reconstitute themselves with an existing centrist group whether that’s the Liberals or the Alberta Party?
“I think that’s a big question: where do the progressives go?”