Jason Kenney is the new leader of the Progressive Conservative party after a sweeping victory Saturday that will likely transform Alberta politics.
While the Tories governed Alberta for more than four decades as Canada’s most successful political machine before their 2015 loss to the NDP, Kenney took 75 per cent of the leadership vote on a platform of uniting the PCs with the Wildrose in a new party to take on the NDP government.
“This party has decided to work with all Albertans to take our province back,” Kenney told a cheering crowd at the Telus Convention Centre after winning 1,113 ballots out of 1,476 votes cast by delegates at the party’s first delegated convention since 1985.
“Thank you for choosing the path of unity, of the future.”
But the former federal cabinet minister will face major hurdles as he works to bridge the divides both within his party and between the PCs and Wildrose, formed nearly a decade ago out of disgust with the PC dynasty. Kenney’s plan calls for negotiations with the Wildrose, a vote by each party’s membership on any potential agreement, and a new leadership race after the new party is formed.
On Monday, he is expected to meet with Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who says he supports unity but wants it done under his party’s legal framework and principles.
“As I’ve said for 18 months, Wildrose has its dancing shoes on when it comes to creating a single, principled, consolidated, conservative movement,” said Jean, who served in the federal Conservative caucus with Kenney, in a statement.
“I hope to meet with Jason … and share with him more about the direction I have heard from our members.”
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Before that get-together, Kenney will meet Sunday with the PC party’s board, which contains many directors not enamoured of the new leader’s unity vision.
In his speech, Kenney tried to reassure Tories “who have anxieties” about unification.
“I want to sit down and hear you, listen to you, offer you a voice,” said Kenney.
“I ask you to give us your input on what a united party should look like and what it should stand for.”
The other candidates in the race, Richard Starke and Byron Nelson — who had both advocated for rebuilding the party under the PC brand — moved to make the result of the election unanimous.
But earlier in the day, Starke — who finished second with 323 votes, or 29 per cent — had warned about the difficulties of the PCs joining ranks with the Wildrose.
Beyond the legal and political challenges, he pointed to Wildrose controversies, such as the comment by a candidate that gay people would suffer in a “lake of fire” that helped sink Wildrose’s chances in the 2012 election, or a recent email from the the group Wildrose on Campus at the University of Calgary that said “feminism is cancer.”
While Starke faced a rumble of boos, he told reporters after Kenney’s win he had no regrets about the comments and that it was his duty to point out potential risks to delegates.
The Vermilion-Lloydminster MLA said Kenney would have his support but he would not be shy about giving his input to the new leader, whose reputation as a social conservative had given some Tories’ pause.
“I will certainly be bringing forward the ideas that I expressed in the course of the campaign, that is we must have a society that is inclusive and welcoming to all, one that has socially progressive values as well as balancing those with fiscal conservatism,” said Starke.
Nelson, who won 40 votes, also offered his full support and assistance to Kenney.
Others though took a different view, with a handful of delegates walking out of the hall during Kenney’s victory speech. Former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, one of Kenney’s fiercest critics in the party, tweeted a picture of his PC membership card in the garbage.
The PC contest, which began unofficially with Kenney’s campaign launch last July, has been a bruising one. Three candidates dropped out of the race, with Sandra Jansen and Stephen Khan citing what they said were the Kenney team’s hardball tactics and intolerance among his supporters.
Jansen later crossed the floor to the NDP government. The president of her former PC constituency association in Calgary-North West, Nick Moskaluk, said he will disassociate from the party with Kenney in charge.
“I don’t feel I’ll have a spot at the table,” he said in an interview.
Khan said it was “a difficult day for a lot of people.”
The former St. Albert MLA said all Tories should keep a level head, but acknowledged leaving the party is a possibility for himself and others.
“There’s lots of options, lots of opportunities, lots of possibilities,” said Khan.
But Donna Kennedy-Glans, who also dropped out of the PC race last fall while questioning whether she had a place in a Kenney-led party, said the new leader had reached out to her and other centrist Tories.
She said she had voted for Kenney and had agreed to serve on his transition team.
“I think this is really essential if we’re going to have a refreshed conservative party ready for the next election,” said Kennedy-Glans.
Kenney entered the convention as an overwhelming favourite, with the backing of four members of the PC caucus and support from most of Alberta’s Conservative MPs. Interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose seconded Kenney’s nomination and introduced him Saturday.
Jason Kenney raises arms with outgoing leader Ric McIver after winning the Alberta PC leadership in downtown Calgary on Saturday March 18, 2017. Gavin Young/Postmedia Network
The move to unify the PCs and Wildrose has taken on new life since the election of the NDP in 2015 but has been tried before. Then-Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, along with 11 of her MLAs, defected to Jim Prentice’s PC government in 2014.
But the mass floor-crossing was a factor in the demise of the Tories, who currently hold eight seats in the legislature to the Wildrose’s 22.
Smith, an automatic delegate who voted for Kenney, said she wouldn’t presume his victory will wipe away the bad blood of the past among conservatives.
“I hope that’s the case but there are people who are entrenched on both sides,” she said in an interview.
In his victory speech, Kenney said his win marks the beginning of the end of Rachel Notley’s NDP government, which he characterized as economically and fiscally catastrophic for Alberta.
But NDP Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous, in attendance at the convention as an observer, said Kenney’s election marked the death of the PC party of Peter Lougheed, the Alberta political icon who founded the Tory dynasty.
He said the NDP was not concerned about a united conservative party because Kenney was pushing an agenda of budget-cutting that would hurt Albertans.
“There are a lot of progressive, mainstream Albertans who are now looking for a home,” said Bilous.