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Alberta Premier Alison Redford announces her resignation in Edmonton on March 19, 2014. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Alberta Premier Alison Redford announces her resignation in Edmonton on March 19, 2014. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Role of campaign donations takes spotlight as Alberta PCs debate succession Add to ...

Together, the top three candidates in Alberta’s last Progressive Conservative leadership race spent more than $5-million campaigning for the province’s top political job – a sum that dwarfs some federal leadership contests.

Now, less than three years later, contributors might question whether those millions of dollars were well-spent. The 2011 winner, Alison Redford, has been pushed out of the job and the machinery for a new party leadership contest this year is gearing up, with little doubt that it will be equally expensive.

The long-governing Alberta party – intent on extending its 43-year-old political rule – was set late Monday to lay out a ground plan for its third leadership race in eight years. One of the key issues will be money, and whether leadership candidates are able to raise cash from traditional Tory backers who have funded pricey leadership contests that picked winners unable to keep their grasp on power for more than a few years.

Both PC critics and supporters acknowledge that going back to donors in such a short period of time will be difficult, especially as the party itself struggles to rebuild its war chest following the fraught 2012 election that most pundits predicted the Wildrose Party would win. But some Tory brass say the cash flow was hurt recently by Ms. Redford’s inability to hold the big-tent party together, or maintain public support, and her departure could mean a rebound in donations.

“They want to see signals in the party, and the government, that things are going to change,” one party insider said.

Alberta is rife with wealthy corporate and individual donors that allow for expensive political campaigns, and there are no spending or donation limits in Alberta PC party leadership contests. In the 2011 Tory leadership contest to replace former premier Ed Stelmach – who also saw his tenure cut short by challenges from within the party – candidate Gary Mar spent nearly $2.7-million on his campaign. Ms. Redford spent more than $1.3-million, and third-place finisher Doug Horner spent $1.2-million.

In contrast, the federal Liberal leadership race in 2013 had a spending limit of $950,000 per candidate.

Other PC party members insist fundraising won’t be a concern this time around as long as the right candidates come forward.

“This, handled the right way, could be rejuvenating. It could be the antithesis of fatigue,” said influential Calgary party fundraiser Brian Felesky. Concern over party unity and protecting the Progressive Conservative legacy in the next election “will trump any fatigue.”

It’s less than a week since Ms. Redford resigned amid abysmal polling numbers, and fierce criticism of her travel expenses and leadership style. A number of cabinet ministers and others are considering a run, but no one has yet formally declared. Party stalwart Dave Hancock has become the interim party leader and was sworn in as Alberta’s 15th Premier on the weekend.

With the PC party board set to meet Monday evening, several candidates said they were waiting to find out the rules and details of the contest before throwing their hat in the ring. If the party sticks to the leadership race rules in its constitution, a vote would be held some time between July and September. But there is a push from within some PC circles not to drag out the contest and to hold the balloting as early as June.

On Monday, cabinet minister Ken Hughes, who is considering a leadership run, emphasized to reporters how important the support of caucus is for the next leader. A lack of communication with caucus was one of the key criticisms levelled at Ms. Redford during her tenure.

Also on Monday, a website calling for Senator Scott Tannas to join the leadership race went online. Mr. Tannas, who earlier this year found himself in political hot water over a series of pricey flights, wasn’t available for comment. However, long-time PC party organizer Alan Hallman said the Alberta senator is considering joining the leadership contest.

“We have some tremendous people in cabinet,” Mr. Hallman said. “My concern is whether that renews the party.”

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