Alberta's Wildrose Party and the province's Progressive Conservative Party have struck a preliminary merger agreement designed to unify the two right-leaning parties under a new banner dubbed the United Conservative Party.
Members of both parties must ratify the deal, and should they give their blessing, the UCP will elect a new leader in October, according to the nine-page agreement released on Thursday. The unification campaign focuses squarely on unseating Premier Rachel Notley. PC Leader Jason Kenney and Wildrose Leader Brian Jean will run to be leader.
Both took shots at the NDP government while pitching their plan on Thursday.
"This agreement ensures the defeat of this disastrous NDP government," Mr. Kenney said, standing beside Mr. Jean at a news conference. "Help is on the way and hope is on the horizon."
Mr. Jean, who wants to give Albertans the power to recall lawmakers, followed suit: "I don't believe the NDP deserve a free ride."
Even though Wildrose and PC members have yet to consent to the agreement, let alone select a leader, the proposed deal already foreshadows what will be a major theme in the next provincial election campaign, scheduled for 2019. Both Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean said that, if elected premier, their first move would be to kill Alberta's carbon tax – the NDP's signature piece of legislation.
Ms. Notley, speaking on Thursday in Carstairs, Alta., attacked the two opposition parties for their calls to cut public-sector jobs and services to trim the deficit and reduce taxes, and for not being "particularly sympathetic or supportive" of LGBTQ rights.
"We went into the [last] election understanding that the economy was about to go into a very significant and almost unprecedented recession, and we made a choice – we made a choice to invest in Albertans and have their back," Ms. Notley said. "I'm happy to have that debate with one right-wing party, or 10 right-wing parties. It doesn't really matter."
With oil prices low and Alberta's economy continuing to suffer in one of the worst downturns in decades, the PCs and Wildrose hope to harness the political discontent of Albertans who have seen friends and family lose their jobs or are out of work themselves.
Mr. Kenney does not have a seat in Alberta's legislature. He said that, should he emerge as the new party's leader in October, he will "focus on" becoming an MLA.
"I don't think I could, as leader of the opposition, be outside the legislature for an extended period of time," Mr. Kenney said in an interview. Mr. Jean leads the Official Opposition.
Under different rules governing each of the parties, three-quarters of Wildrose members and 50 per cent of PC cardholders must support the UCP proposal for it to proceed. The parties will vote in July. The PCs effectively voted to unite when they selected Mr. Kenney as their leader in March.
"This thing is only going to work if people like Brian and I are prepared to park our egos and put the province first," Mr. Kenney told reporters, encouraging others to join the leadership race.
Wildrose and the PCs have agreed not to compete against each other in the next election if the unification deal crumbles, according to the proposal's final clause.
Should Alberta's two conservative parties amalgamate this summer, their existing Members of the Legislature are expected to sit under a single banner. Caucus members of both parties will host a joint meeting to elect an interim leader by secret ballot. That politician, in turn, will not be allowed to run for the leadership of the united party and must remain neutral during that contest.
Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney said they are open to ditching the name UCP should members prefer a different one.
The agreement stipulates that both existing parties will have equal influence shaping the UCP. For example, Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney would each pick six people to sit on the UCP's interim board; the two leaders would each select five people for the new outfit's policy committee; they would each hand-pick two more people to serve on the nomination committee, which would define the terms of the leadership race.
Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney have yet to campaign against each other, but some of their party members have already voiced concern about joining together. Centrists in the PC camp worry a new party would shift to the right, while the most conservative Wildrose members fret a union would mean sliding to the left. Wildrose started as a splinter party about 10 years ago and is Alberta's most right-wing party.
PC defections started before Mr. Kenney won the leadership in March. For example, Sandra Jansen, who was elected as a PC MLA and was one of the most progressive voices in the party, crossed the floor to the NDP late last year.
Mr. Kenney brushed off concerns about clashing policies derailing the unification effort. "Momentum is a very powerful force," he said in an interview. "Right now, momentum is clearly on the side of uniting."