Alberta is taking a gradual approach to balancing its budget while protecting programs that matter most, Premier Jason Kenney told delegates at the United Conservative Party's annual general meeting in Calgary on Saturday.
"Some of this will be controversial, some of it will invite protests, saw one today," Kenney told the hundreds of members assembled in Calgary. "But I'm reminded of what premier Ralph Klein used to say. 'If a day goes by and there's not a protest, I'm wondering what I'm doing wrong.'"
Outside the Westin Calgary Airport hotel hosting the convention, between 700 and 1,000 people marched, protesting cuts to public services and the looming loss of thousands of public sector jobs.
Klein, Alberta's late premier known for deep cuts of more than 20 per cent to public spending in the 1990s, was not just top of mind for Kenney but for protestors as well — with one sign reading "Ralph Klein, But Less Fun: UCP."
Inside the AGM, the party's first since it formed government in the province's spring election, Kenney assured those in the room that this budget's cuts are a far cry from those seen in the 1990s.
"Our approach is soft-hearted, but hard-headed," Kenney said. "We do not want to lay off good people … and we will work hard to minimize the impact of this 2.8 per cent modest reduction in spending."
Kenney also told attendees — receiving multiple standing ovations during his hour-long speech — he's just getting started when it comes to accomplishing the government's mandate, saying just 12 per cent of the way into its four-year mandate the government has delivered on 39 per cent of its commitments.
He outlined actions like repealing the province's carbon tax, appointing a red tape reduction minister and proclaiming the education act, with the audience chanting "promise made, promise kept" after every stated accomplishment.
The UCP leader also harkened back to the spring election, taking a few shots at the provincial NDP and what he described as "media pundits and phony polls" in the process.
"When the voters were allowed to speak we received 55 per cent of the popular vote, a 22 point lead over the NDP. That was the highest popular vote in this province in two decades," Kenney said.
"Albertans rejected their anger and instead embraced our positive message of hope."
He also said the NDP is upset with the passage of Bill 22, which allows the government to fire the election commissioner who has been keen in uncovering campaign finance violations related to the 2017 UCP leadership race, which Kenney won.
Before Kenney took the stage, introduced by former prime minister Stephen Harper's wife Laureen Harper, attendees were treated to a cultural showcase — first an Indigenous hoop dancer, followed by a Bhangra group and finally children who performed a Ukrainian folk dance.
Kenney said he leads the youngest and most diverse caucus in the history of the Alberta legislature.
"They earned their way to the legislature through open nominations because we believe in equality of opportunity not NDP-style quotas," he said.
The roughly 1,600 AGM attendees will be in Calgary until Sunday to vote on a variety of resolutions and elect new members to its board of directors. On Friday, they listened to a speech by federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
Kenney said his next steps are to bring the group's messages first to a premiers' meeting on Sunday, and then to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Kenney says he and Trudeau will meet in Ottawa in 10 days.