Call it a conservative compromise.
Tory Members of Parliament representing Alberta ridings will continue to be welcomed with full voting rights at provincial Progressive Conservative Party conventions.
However, provincial Tories decided Saturday to end their previous tradition of granting similar privileges to potential swaths of delegates from the riding associations of their federal counterparts.
The decision came in Calgary during the Alberta PC Party’s annual general meeting, attended by about 1,100 delegates, amid concerns that some backers of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government threw their support to the opposition Wildrose Party during last spring’s provincial election.
Some delegates at this weekend’s closed-door meeting were worried that the federal Tories who are also Wildrose supporters could sabotage internal PC party matters.
“I can see people’s concern,” said Alberta MP Ted Menzies, who took in the convention as a card-carrying member of the provincial PC party. “(However)…The federal riding associations, I don’t think, have ever taken advantage of the fact that there’s 15 automatic delegates to the (Alberta PC) convention.”
Currently, 27 of 28 federal seats in Alberta belong to the Harper Tories, which means those 27 MPs could have arrived at this provincial convention with a total of 405 delegates in tow. Now, any of the non-MPs who wish to attend will have to buy provincial party memberships to participate.
Mr. Menzies, who is minister of state for finance, and Michelle Rempel, a first-term MP from Calgary, were the only federal MPs whom Alberta Premier Alison Redford said she spotted at the convention.
“I’m supportive of this party,” Mr. Menzies said, “And supportive of this premier, and she’s doing a great job.”
Provincial Tories told the media after the private session they were satisfied with the compromise.
Ms. Redford called the delegates decision a “good approach.”
Alberta Justice Minister and Solicitor General Jonathan Denis called it a “good compromise.” He also said there are no hard feelings regarding the federal Tories who abandoned the party during the spring election, which Ms. Redford won with a huge majority. “This is a democracy they can support whoever they want,” Mr. Denis said.
Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the automatic inclusion of potential federal delegates “definitely gave them a lot of power” and could impact votes on internal party matters in a “very substantive way.”
But he shrugged off concerns about a fractured relationship with Ottawa.
“This is true democracy at play,” Mr. Lukaszuk said. “Just because we both have the word ‘conservative’ in our names doesn’t mean we will always agree on everything, and there is no expectation that they will automatically support us during elections.”
“Sure, there are some outliers in the federal caucus that simply overtly choose not to support this party,” he added.
Jim Horsman, a former provincial Tory cabinet minister from Medicine Hat said the resolution represents a further weaning of the provincial party from the national party.
“We stand alone independent of what the federal brothers and sisters may be doing,” Mr. Horsman said, “That’s the message I would hope would be taken out of it.”
Later Saturday, delegates narrowly selected Jim McCormick, a former oil and gas executive from Calgary, as the next party president succeeding outgoing president Bill Smith.
Mr. McCormick narrowly beat Lorne Olsvik, a long-time municipal leader from the County of Lac Ste. Anne.
The actual vote count was not released by the party.
Also Saturday, the much-criticized, and often confusing, internal party system that was used to select Alberta’s last three premiers was abandoned in an almost unanimous vote.
The preferential ballot system, which dates back to 1989, has resulted in the election of Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford in successive provincial Tory leadership contests. However, the system, which allows the voters for the third-place candidate to effectively dictate the eventual winner, has been maligned for allowing political longshots to overtake the frontrunners.
Party members decided Saturday to replace it with a new system: If no one is elected by a majority on the first ballot, only two names will carry onto a second vote where whoever has a clear majority will be declared the winner.
Some Tories grumbled when both Mr. Stelmach in 2006, and Ms. Redford last year, pulled out surprising victories, thanks to grabbing the supporters of the third-place candidates.
“There has been a desire for a long time to look at the way that Premier Klein won,” explained Kelley Charlebois, executive director of the provincial Tories.
Mr. Klein defeated Nancy Betkowski in 1992 after Rick Orman, the third-place candidate dropped out before the second ballot.
Rookie Calgary MLA Linda Johnson, who has been a member of the party for more than three decades said the new process is much more simplified for not only Tories but also for all Albertans.
“I always come back to (this question) when the party is proposing things: Can I explain it to my son who’s in Grade 11?” she said, “And, two names on the end and whoever is 50-per-cent-plus-1 wins the vote, that’s easy to explain to students in classrooms and the general public.”
Alberta’s Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths, who challenged Ms. Redford for the party’s leadership last year and didn’t make it to the second ballot, said the issue for him isn’t how many people are on the final ballot but the length of the leadership race.
“If it’s long, (if) it takes a year, it paralyzes caucus, it paralyzes cabinet, it can leave the government sitting, and it leaves Albertans wondering so what are we going to do?” he said.
Last year’s contest that elected Ms. Redford lasted nine months. But the length of future campaigns remains up to the leader.
During the weekend’s annual general meeting, Tory leaders also mused about borrowing to build important infrastructure projects such as roads, schools and health care centres.
Doug Horner, who is Alberta’s finance minister as well as president of the Treasury Board, told reporters Saturday the province would look to capital markets to help fund long-term assets.
“Most people don't buy their house for cash,” he said, “They make sure it is amortized over time.”
He said the province would not borrow to cover its operating budget and added that operating debt would not be allowed to balloon to the $23-billion level that Mr. Klein inherited and slayed.
“It's like paying for your groceries with your Visa. We are not going to do that,” said Mr. Horner, who restated his pledge to balance the budget next year.
Rob Anderson, who is the finance and Treasury Board critic for the opposition Wildrose Party, turned to Twitter to express his concern that the Tories plan to return the province to debt.
“Redford's admission she will be retuning Alberta to debt really is crazy,” he wrote.
Ms. Redford, who lauded Mr. Klein’s legacy for beating down the debt, said party members didn’t seem concerned about talk of borrowing even during a closed-door question-and-answer session.
“We've been talking very much around infrastructure spending,” she told reporters later, “I think there's a very clear commitment from Albertans that they want us to make responsible decisions with respect to that. So we're very confident.”
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