Brian Jean and Jason Kenney are partners and rivals. They are making nice as they lobby Wildrose Party loyalists and Progressive Conservative Party members to reunite. But despite the pleasantries and handshakes, rifts between the two have already emerged, foreshadowing issues that will define the fight to lead a new conservative party in Alberta.
The two politicians stood together this week, introducing their proposed United Conservative Party and its negotiated founding principles. The document is littered with lofty language disguising compromise. Even UCP’s acronym, which unleashed a flurry of juvenile jokes, reflects middle ground rather than sweeping enthusiasm.
Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney are challenging each other for the leadership of the party that does not yet exist, although they unabashedly declare that UCP’s purpose is to defeat Alberta’s ruling New Democratic Party. Wildrose leader Mr. Jean and PC head Mr. Kenney may agree on UCP’s electoral aspirations and purposely vague principles, but they diverge on specific policy – and it shows.
“The folks on the Wildrose side wanted a lot more content and specifics in the agreement,” Mr. Kenney said in an interview, describing points of contention in the seven-week negotiations. “Our view was to take a more modest approach – have a general agreement, allowing the members to develop the policy and constitutional details.”
Wildrose lawmakers, for example, repeatedly introduce recall bills that would give constituents the right to remove members of the Legislature and force by-elections. PCs oppose the idea. Some PCs, meanwhile, have a socially progressive streak and if UCP is going to be inclusive, then members of that faction must be comfortable sitting beside their right-wing relatives.
“We spent a lot of time on the declaration of principles to make sure that key emblematic issues for both parties were reflected there,” Mr. Kenney said Thursday. “Wildrose accepted the formulation of progressive social policies and a diverse coalition that reflects the diversity of today’s Alberta. We accepted property rights and language around more democratic accountability.”
Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney differ on whether some of the principles are open to interpretation.
Indeed, the founding principles exclude the word “recall” but insist on “grassroots democracy, including measures to empower Albertans to hold governments accountable during and between elections.” Mr. Kenney said he demanded UCP members make the final call. Mr. Jean, meanwhile, argues the principle directly translates to recall legislation. Further, there is a reference to property rights, a policy Wildrose defends fiercely, but it, too, is a general nod. On the flip side, the blueprint calls for “compassion for the less fortunate expressed through progressive social policies that help people to become self-reliant, and ensure equality of opportunity.”
Mr. Jean has already rolled out planks in his UCP leadership platform that differentiate him from his rival.
Standing beside Mr. Kenney at a news conference Thursday, Mr. Jean said that if elected premier, his priorities would include “restoring property rights, making sure that we have the ability to recall MLAs.”
In Alberta, property owners have clashed with the government and energy companies over projects such as pipelines and power-transmission lines on their private land. Wildrose wants to give landowners – and this primarily affects rural residents – more protections.
The Wildrose leader, who lost a son to illness in 2015, said he will also champion health care. “The health-care system failed [some Albertans], like it failed my family,” he said in an interview Friday. “I’m determined to get it fixed.”
(Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney both pledge to immediately repeal Premier Rachel Notley’s carbon tax.)
The UCP proposal needs support from 75 per cent of Wildrose members and 50 per cent of PCs in order to proceed. The respective parties will hold referendums in July. UCP is scheduled to elect its first leader in October.
Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean are the only two politicians who have declared leadership ambitions. They have a history: Mr. Jean was a backbench member of Parliament when Mr. Kenney was a high-profile cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Political centrists could be out in the cold in the next election, scheduled for 2019, should it turn into a showdown between UCP and the NDP.
Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark called the unity deal a “hostile takeover” of the PC Party. Former PC deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk believes Mr. Kenney is building a false mythology that this is the reunion of a political family. There has always been a clear split in Alberta, according to Mr. Lukaszuk, between PCs and more ardent right-wingers.
“What you really have is a group of people who say, ‘Come hell or high water, we have to get rid of the NDP,’” Mr. Lukaszuk, a long-time critic of Mr. Kenney, said in an interview. “In my opinion – and I venture to guess in the opinion of most Albertans – a political party has to offer more than just saying we will get rid of the current government.”
Some PC and Wildrose members are compromising their values to be back in power, Mr. Lukaszuk said. “There are a group of people who simply want back at the trough.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney on Thursday agreed one of UCP’s most notable elements – its name – could be scrapped should members so choose. The original negotiating committee, made up of representatives from the two parties, wanted “conservative” in the name, but Alberta’s chief electoral officer would not permit a moniker that too closely reflected a previously registered name, according to Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon. “In the end, United Conservative Party, I don’t want to say it was the best name we could get, but it was the name we were able to get approved,” he said.