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GARY MASON

Backroom battles begin ahead of Alberta PC leadership race Add to ...

For a party that was given up for dead not long ago, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives are generating a lot of news these days. And even though the race to find a new leader hasn’t officially kicked off yet, it has unofficially kicked off with all the attendant backroom viciousness and knife-twisting we now come to expect with these types of affairs.

At the centre of it all is Jason Kenney, the former federal Tory cabinet minister who was the only declared candidate in the race until Thursday, when former PC cabinet minister Donna Kennedy-Glans announced she was running.

His platform is unusual to the extent that, if victorious, Mr. Kenney pledges to blow his party up and create a new home (with a new name) in which all conservatives can seek harbour. In his view, this is the most assured way of getting rid of Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

Many well-moneyed folk in Alberta concur.

Mr. Kenney’s incursion into provincial politics has been polarizing.

His move is opposed by elected PC MLAs and those inside the party hierarchy chagrined with his intent of killing a political institution that ruled the province for more than four decades.

Their consternation is even more understandable when you consider that most of those occupying executive positions inside the party are volunteers who have devoted endless hours of their time in the name of keeping the badly damaged Tory machine functioning.

The party has set out the ground rules for the leadership contest that formally gets under way Oct. 1 – although Mr. Kenney has declared his intention to run and has begun fundraising and making critical connections among potential voters. One of the big changes in this leadership convention, from previous ones, is that it will be delegated, and not determined by one person, one vote rules. Each of the 87 ridings associations will send 15 delegates, including five that have to be chosen from the constituency’s board.

Mr. Kenney would surely have preferred a one person, one vote system. Most candidates with strong organizations do; it allows them to go out and sign up party members en masse, the infamous “two-minute” Tories who cast a vote for leader and then have nothing to do with the party after that. Ethnic groups, in particular, are often targeted in bulk membership drives. Mr. Kenney unquestionably would have done well under this type of leadership battle.

His camp is also not happy that board members get five spots, because they are more likely to be old-time PCers who are less amenable to the idea of a candidate planning to windup their party in the name of uniting the right.

Many of those party veterans still harbour intensely bitter feelings over the last attempt to unite the right in Alberta. That occurred two years ago, when Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her MLAs crossed the floor into the welcoming arms of then-premier Jim Prentice, a move that was viewed by the public as a crass and cynical attempt to consolidate power. It backfired spectacularly. Not only did it prematurely end Ms. Smith’s once-promising political career, but largely contributed to the historic defeat of the Tories at the hands of the NDP.

Tension inside the Progressive Conservatives, meantime, is rising. Many in the Kenney faction are extremely unhappy with Katherine O’Neill, the dynamic young president of the Progressive Conservatives who has done such a formidable job of rebuilding the party in the wake of its humiliating defeat. Ms. O’Neill would be best to keep her back to all walls, such is the degree of antipathy toward her leadership by people in Mr. Kenney’s corner. They see some of the party’s moves as tactics employed solely to prevent Mr. Kenney from winning. On the other hand, if Ms. O’Neill wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of seeing all her hard work get washed down the drain, who could blame her? Any attempts, nefarious or otherwise, by a disgruntled candidate to undermine her leadership would likely misfire spectacularly.

Over the next month, we are likely to see other names emerge in the bid to become the leader of Peter Lougheed’s party. Some are likely to be people few know anything about, while there could be a couple among the nine politicians currently representing the Tories in the legislature who decide to take a shot at it.

In the end, Jason Kenney is likely to be the biggest name. Whether he can sell people on his contentious plan for uniting the right in Alberta remains to be seen.

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