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Striving to rebuild after loss, Alberta PCs hold first leadership forum Add to ...

Mark Nikota has been a card-carrying Progressive Conservative for less than two years, but in that time, he has seen Alberta’s long-ruling party suffer a crushing electoral loss, fall deep into debt, and then emerge leaderless and powerless. Catastrophic defeat, he says, has been a godsend.

Shaken by their fall, Alberta’s Tories insist they have gone back to their roots. It has been a rapid and sweeping transformation for the big machine that once dominated Alberta politics. Due to an empty bank account, the party’s offices have been closed and political staffers let go. Proposed changes to the PCs’ constitution would pass power from the leader to local associations and the party’s volunteer board.

“We got wiped out and we needed it, because people are now woken up,” said Mr. Nikota, who is president of the party’s largely rural constituency association around Drumheller. “There’s been a revitalization of the party and it’s all been volunteer-driven.”

As many as 1,000 people are expected at a PC policy convention in Red Deer on the weekend, energized by plunging poll numbers for the governing New Democrats and an exciting leadership race. The six candidates, including former federal MP Jason Kenney, will take the stage for the party’s first leadership forum on Saturday evening.

The Tories held power for nearly 44 years, and were used to having a leader who ran the party from the premier’s office in Edmonton. When its coffers were filled with corporate donations, the PC party was often seen as arrogant, even to its own members, Mr. Nikota said.

“It’s definitely not your grandfather’s party any more. After so many years of the leader being the dominant person in the room, I hate to use the word ‘grassroots,’ but the members have really taken back the party,” he said.

In March, the party will elect its first permanent leader since 1971 who will not automatically become premier. The election will be held at a delegated convention.

The use of delegates is a post-defeat change in rules and will mark the first time in 20 years that a leadership candidate cannot buy last-minute memberships to swing a vote and will need the support of a majority of the party’s 87 constituencies.

The planned return to local decision-making has been applauded by Mr. Kenney, who has pledged to unite the Tories with Alberta’s Official Opposition, the Wildrose Party. “I think there has been frankly too much top-down arrogance in the PC party in the past. We need to change the culture,” he told reporters at the Alberta Legislature on Monday.

Among the proposed changes to the constitution is an amendment requiring a future leader to work with the party’s president and board of directors to set the PCs’ agenda. The board would also get more say on spending, and the leader would need approval from the party to call a snap election.

“We’re trying to balance the power. One of the lessons from the election loss was that we were a very leader-focused party. A lot of party members thought it wasn’t a team effort. These changes are to make sure that a lot of people are at the table when decisions are made, like calling an election,” party president Katherine O’Neill told The Globe and Mail.

For the 2015 election campaign, the PC leader, former premier Jim Prentice, took out a $1.5-million loan for which he did not require board approval, according to Ms. O’Neill. “That was a big shock to people when they found out,” she said.

The proposed changes have their detractors, including interim leader Ric McIver. He says the measures would treat elected MLAs like “employees” of party members, and limiting the leader’s power through the board and president would not work. “It would be very detrimental to the future of the party should the membership pass those things,” he said.

The debate comes at a time when the party finished first in a poll conducted by Lethbridge College in early October. In Red Deer over the weekend, party members are expected to adopt a new set of principles that place the Tories ideologically between Wildrose and New Democrats, anchoring them to a fiscally conservative and socially progressive agenda.

The Tories hope to win voters back from the centrist coalition that elected Rachel Notley as Alberta’s first left-wing premier in nearly a century. Ms. O’Neill has been talking with people like Mr. Nikota, who describes himself as “very middle of the road.”

According to Ms. O’Neill, who was elected president in May, the Tories have cut their debt in half to $750,000, and all but one of the party’s 12 employees has been let go. Much of that has been driven by the difficulty raising money. With the New Democrats passing new electoral finance rules forbidding corporate and union donations, the PC Party has raised a fraction of the amounts its rivals have.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, the PCs raised just over $180,000, according to Elections Alberta. During that time, the NDP and Wildrose raised about $1.2-million.

While the party says it is rebuilding a fundraising machine that focuses on small donations from members, it faces a different reality, according to Stephen Carter. A chief of staff to former PC premier Alison Redford, Mr. Carter is helping with Calgary MLA Sandra Jansen’s leadership campaign.

“It’s a third-place party in an environment where the PCs traded on being in government for so long. Raising money without corporate donations is going to be difficult,” he said. “The world has changed.”

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