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Canada Unity test begins in Alberta after big win for conservative merger

Wildrose supporters celebrate the yes vote during the Unity Vote at the Wildrose Special General Meeting in Red Deer Alta., on Saturday July 22, 2017.

Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Even a massive vote in favour of unity doesn't guarantee a smooth road ahead for Alberta's small-c conservatives.

The provincial Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties announced this weekend that their members had voted strongly in favour of unification, with the Yes side winning 95 per cent in each party. Concern about vote-splitting on the political right won out over past grudges between the two parties. The decisive unity win alters Alberta's political landscape, with many of the province's conservatives clearly making the defeat of Rachel Notley's New Democratic government in the 2019 election their main goal.

"Let's go and kick some NDP butt," was the phrasing from Wildrose Party president Jeff Callaway at a celebratory gathering in Red Deer on Saturday afternoon.

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But before the United Conservative Party can challenge the NDP, it must get its own house in order. And that means writing policies, choosing an interim leader and not letting the divisions show too much in what is expected to be a fierce leadership contest, culminating in an Oct. 28 vote.

Still, the longer-term challenge will be ensuring that the party can do more than just criticize Ms. Notley's NDP government.

Ultimately, the new party will be largely defined by its new leader, whose biggest tasks will include making sure the different factions are rowing in the same direction.

"The leader is the most important piece in all of this," said Lori Williams, a Mount Royal University policy studies professor.

In the leadership race, all eyes are on Jason Kenney, the Harper-era federal cabinet minister who now leads the soon-to-be-defunct PC party, and Brian Jean, his Wildrose counterpart. Even before the new party becomes a formal entity, the two are instant front-runners with experienced, federal organizers in their camps. Federal Conservative support of the unity vote is clear – former prime minister Stephen Harper, for one, tweeted out his congratulations Saturday, saying it was "an important first victory."

But despite the strong vote results, not all Alberta Progressive Conservatives agree with Mr. Harper's world view. Some describe unity as a hostile takeover by the more fiscally and socially conservative Wildrose, and already had left the PC party. Others waited until after the vote. Former PC MLA Dave Quest resigned from a party constituency board Saturday evening after the results became known.

"I truly believe the far-right-wing element of this new party will dominate it."

Mr. Quest is now involved with a group of self-described centrists called Alberta Together, who say they reject both the NDP and the new united party's principles – and who could use the one-MLA Alberta Party as its electoral vehicle in the next provincial election. On the other side of the political spectrum, a group of devoted Wildrosers say the inclusion of the PCs will dilute conservative principles, and they will start working to create their own party as early as next weekend.

But the new United Conservative Party's foundation is based on the belief that NDP policies have made the economic effects of the oil-price drop of the past three years much worse. The NDP has generally chosen a strategy of continued spending over cuts to keep the economy and public services going – to the detriment of the province's budget and credit rating. Ms. Notley has also rankled many conservatives with the province's introduction of a carbon tax – a key part of her plan to improve Alberta's environmental performance and reputation. With heavy-oil-pipeline projects to the West and East coasts stymied by opposition, conservatives argue the policy has been a failure.

After working for weeks to get the unity measure passed, the next stage for Alberta conservatives begins Monday with the selection of an interim leader by 22 Wildrose and 8 PC MLAs. Three names are likely to come up as candidates: PC MLA Richard Gotfried and Wildrose MLAs Prasad Panda and Nathan Cooper.

The shape of the party, including some policies and rules, will also be laid out in the weeks ahead. "You could easily lose some of the supporters today if the party structure winds up looking too top-down," Prof. Williams warned.

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But those questions are really side events to what's expected to be a rough-and-tumble leadership race. The camps are anxiously waiting to hear the official rules of the contest, including how onerous the entry fee will be, and the timeline for membership sales.

In terms of campaign teams, Mr. Kenney has long-time Harper confidant John Weissenberger in his camp. Mr. Jean recently announced that Hamish Marshall will act as campaign manager – just off Mr. Marshall's successful campaign for federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

Doug Schweitzer, another candidate in the leadership contest, is not as well known but is seen as representing the PC side of the new party. Derek Fildebrandt, a Wildrose MLA who has positioned himself as a defender of so-called liberty conservatism in the new party, is also considering a run.

Although Mr. Jean is coming from the more right-leaning Wildrose, he appears to be positioning himself as a moderate choice as the leadership race heats up.

Earlier this month, Mr. Jean told columnist Rick Bell that "gone are the days when hard-right governments are going to be successful in Alberta" – a comment that was widely interpreted as a dig at some of his leadership opponents.

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