The day after claiming victory in the United Conservative Party leadership race, Jason Kenney was as confident and combative as ever – saying he cannot wait in his quest to oust Alberta's NDP government, and will seek a seat in the province's legislature through a by-election.
"This NDP government knows that they're living on borrowed time," Mr. Kenney told reporters on Sunday afternoon, adding he would gladly accept Premier Rachel Notley calling a general election even earlier than between March and May, 2019 – the legislated writ period.
"If they make some strange decision to go earlier, I would welcome it. Because every day they're not in power is a good day for Alberta."
Ms. Notley, who tweeted her congratulations to Mr. Kenney, has six months to call a by-election once a seat is vacated. A long-time MLA will resign this week to make room for Mr. Kenney to run. The UCP Leader said he's confident Ms. Notley will call a vote without delay, and hopes the by-election process could be under way before the end of the year.
In Edmonton, Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman said Ms. Notley has yet to make a decision on the timing, but the NDP will be prepared to meet Mr. Kenney head-on in the contest.
She said Mr. Kenney in government would enact deep cuts to health care and education services, "so he can give big tax giveaways to his friends and insiders."
As many predicted, the 49-year-old Mr. Kenney won on the first ballot on Saturday, with 61.1 per cent of eligible party members casting a vote for the former federal Conservative cabinet minister. That compares with 31.5 per cent support for his chief rival, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean. Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer received 7.3 per cent of the votes.
On Sunday, Mr. Kenney said there is a constitutional responsibility for the Official Opposition to be prepared to be government, and the leader needs to be in the legislature. MLA Dave Rodney, who represents Calgary-Lougheed in the city's southwest – adjacent to Mr. Kenney's old federal riding of Calgary Midnapore – said in the press conference with Mr. Kenney that he will formally resign on Wednesday to allow the UCP Leader to contest the seat.
Mr. Kenney quit federal politics last year in a quest to bring together Alberta's Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties. Amid weak public support for the NDP government, members from both parties voted in July to create a new, merged entity to end vote-splitting on the right and try to win power in the next election. Alberta's oil-focused economy is improving but still shaky, and Mr. Kenney's constant message of restrained spending and repealing the province's carbon tax has found broad appeal among the province's conservatives.
The NDP has centred on policies to improve the province's environmental image, defended significant public spending with an eye to keeping the economy afloat during the downturn and has established a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals.
Mr. Kenney promises that, should he become premier, he will take a much testier line with Ottawa on energy policy, or other provinces that get in the way of oil-pipeline construction – going as far as raising the spectre of forcing the renegotiation of the equalization formula, or an economic blockade of British Columbia. While Mr. Kenney capitalized on his long experience as a Harper-era cabinet minister, his reputation as a social conservative and his combative political style has especially inflamed the governing NDP – and even some of his fellow conservatives.
Unlike Mr. Jean – who looked pained with his loss on Saturday, and did not speak to reporters – Mr. Kenney doesn't have a seat in Alberta's legislature.
Mr. Kenney is scheduled to hold an informal meeting with his caucus Sunday evening, and will meet with them again in Edmonton on Monday – the day Alberta's legislature resumes for the fall sitting. He said Mr. Jean will play an important role in the party's shadow cabinet "and future government."
Alberta's NDP government holds 54 seats and the UCP now counts 27 MLA in its ranks. Three MLAs in Alberta's 87-seat legislature sit as independents and three others are single members of their parties, and there remains the possibility that a stronger centrist entity will emerge to siphon off support from both the NDP and the UCP.
There are many other challenges ahead for Mr. Kenney. Eleven UCP MLAs supported Mr. Jean's leadership bid. Mr. Kenney has said it will be key to maintain "coherence in a big-tent, free-enterprise coalition." He has also acknowledged that winning support in Edmonton, where the UCP had far fewer members than in Calgary and the NDP is a stronger political force, will be an uphill battle.
His detractors continue to be wary regarding his conservative beliefs on social issues such as gay-straight alliances. He says that in some cases parents should be informed when their children join the peer-support groups – a move many say could out gay students before they are ready.
However, Mr. Kenney has maintained he will not legislate on any hot-button social issues. On Saturday, during his victory speech, he appeared to make a small nod to ever-present concerns about his social views, saying: "We don't care in this party what God you worship or who you love, what we care about as Albertans is how hard you work."
In the days leading up to the leadership vote, he also said he will make sure all party candidates in the 2019 election will go through a vigorous vetting process. "I'm committed to screening out people who hold extreme views."