Big shift in Alberta politics expected as Conservatives choose new leader

Wildrose campus group implosion offers yet another glimpse of Alberta's bare-knuckle unite-the-right fight

They haven't picked a new leader yet, but already "progressives" are manoeuvring behind the scenes of the upcoming Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership convention to map out where to go, and what to do next.

As delegates gather this weekend in Calgary, the biggest question is not who will win the party leadership, but by how much, according to MacEwan University political scientist John Soroski.

"There are some conventions where you're sitting on pins and needles, wondering what's going to happen," Soroski says.

"I don't think anybody thinks this is going to be one of those."

Running a well-financed, slickly organized campaign machine, Jason Kenney methodically acquired delegates from most of the 87 constituencies.

The former federal Conservative cabinet minister, running on a platform to unite Alberta's right, stands the best chance of a first-ballot victory when the votes are counted Saturday afternoon.

Kenney's opponents are PC MLA Richard Starke and Byron Nelson, a Calgary lawyer and business owner.

Two socially progressive candidates — Sandra Jansen and Donna Kennedy-Glans — dropped out in November. Jansen cited intimidation and harassment while Kennedy-Glans said she realized there was little room for "centrist voices to be heard." Former PC MLA Stephen Khan quit the contest in January, complaining of "vitriol, anger and division" within the party.

CBC News has learned that many former PC cabinet ministers and party members who support Starke's leadership bid are now working to unite the centre right under another, or altogether new, party.

Some are turning to the Alberta Party, says Leader Greg Clark.

"In the past it's been tire kicking," says Clark, the lone MLA for the self-described moderate middle party.

"It's different now."

Clark says he's been approached by several PC members he won't name. They want to join and build the Alberta Party with the intention of being the choice of centrist voters, he says.

"There are people who I would say are putting plans together, who are talking with their friends, who are talking with other members of the PC party in particular, of course, given what's going on," says Clark. "I would characterize it as serious interest."

One of those who has been talking to the Alberta Party is former PC MLA and deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who says it has gone far beyond "tire kicking."

There are discussions

"There are discussions," says Lukaszuk, who will be in Calgary this weekend to vote for Starke.

"There has to be a uniting of the centre," he adds. "There are a number of us who are definitely not going to give up."

The group, which is "larger than most people think," includes "past mayors from all over the province, and other high profile people who have always had a centrist vision," Lukaszuk says. "By Alberta standards, this is revolutionary."

After the leadership is over,he says, "there will be a massive realignment."

But PC members aren't the only ones eyeing Clark's door.

Clark says he was called by Reform Party founder Preston Manning, now president of the conservative think-tank Manning Centre. The centre promotes the idea of one united Conservative party in Alberta but has not officially endorsed the Kenney campaign.

"[Manning] said he wasn't calling on behalf [of Jason Kenney] per se," Clark says. "We know, I think, where his sympathies lie, so I'm not interested in that, I'm not interested in working with Jason Kenney. He doesn't reflect my values."

Clark says he got the impression Manning was making him an offer that "if you come and join us, then I'll give you that.

"And so when someone says, 'I can't promise you anything, but you're the sort of person who would be well positioned to be in cabinet,' well, that's how that happens, apparently," says Clark.

CBC News tried to reach Manning to ask about Clark's assertion. The Manning Centre responded, saying in an emailed statement that Manning has "no ability to appoint people to the provincial cabinet so he does not make cabinet position offers to anyone.

"What he has said to elected officials in several parties is that it is crucial right now for everyone to put Alberta's interests first — ahead of partisan interests — in order to get the province back on the right track."

'Popular guy these days'

Clark, meanwhile, says he feels "like a popular guy these days." He said he has had a "sit-down" with Wildrose Leader Brian Jean but didn't consider it a "formal overture." He hasn't been approached by the NDP, he adds.

Longtime conservative strategist and analyst Tom Flanagan, a retired University of Calgary political scientist, says by bringing the Wildrose and PCs together under a unite-the-right movement, Kenney doesn't need to court Liberal or Alberta Party voters.

Flanagan thinks between five and 10 per cent of the voting population don't want a merged party, and some will leave if Kenney wins, but he doesn't expect the numbers to be large.

"I don't think there'd be a big enough exit of PCs to revivify the Liberals or to make the Alberta Party into a formidable contender," he adds.

Starke, Nelson plan to stick with PCs

Starke, the only sitting MLA running for the PC leadership, says he'll remain in the PC caucus regardless of the outcome. But he adds he's a firm believer in "respectful dialogue," and principles established under former leader Peter Lougheed.

"I will be concerned if there is evidence we're moving in a different direction," says Starke, who is worried a "large vacuum" would be created by having one major party on the political left, and one on the right, without a party representing moderate voters.

"To remove yourself as a political movement from that ground where the people are, I think is a terrible mistake." 

Nelson says he's not going anywhere after the vote, and will remain a PC member to support the new leader. He said it has been an interesting process but is disappointed the campaign focused on uniting the right.

"That was definitely a surprise, I didn't think we'd be entirely consumed by that issue."

Kenney was unavailable for an interview, but in an emailed statement, his campaign team said Kenney has "spent the past week reaching out [to] the over 1,000 unity delegates, helping them understand the voting process."

If he becomes the party leader, Kenney says, his first priority would be to "meet with [Wildrose Leader] Brian Jean and discuss how we move forward on unity to renew the Alberta Advantage."

The PC leadership convention will be held at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary beginning Friday afternoon. The first ballot to elect the new leader begins at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.