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opinion

For most of his six months as leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Jason Kenney has been unshackled from policies that could cause him problems. That’s about to change.

The party is holding its founding convention this weekend in Red Deer. It will be the first time the UCP will attempt to become more than the hollow political entity it’s been since Mr. Kenney orchestrated the merger of the province’s two mainstream conservative institutions – the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose – under a new banner.

Mr. Kenney has made few false steps since abandoning federal politics to return home to lead the charge against Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government. Consequently, it’s hard to imagine he’d stand idly by and watch his dream of returning a right-wing party to power in Alberta be done in by policies that portray the UCP as radical wingnuts.

Then again, given the current level of enmity that exists toward the NDP, it may not matter.

But this policy convention becomes a tricky political dance for Mr. Kenney. The union of the Tories and Wildrose means there will need to be some compromises. It means Mr. Kenney will need to throw some red meat in the direction of Wildrose types, they being the more stridently small-c conservative faction of the party. (Or as some would suggest: backward.)

During the 2012 provincial election, Wildrose was seemingly headed for victory when a year-old blog post by one of the party’s candidates surfaced. In it, Allan Hunsperger, a preacher, predicted “eternity in the lake of fire” for gays and lesbians. The party’s fortunes would take a dramatic tumble immediately afterward, costing the party the election. Then-leader Danielle Smith would later lament Mr. Hunsperger’s “bozo eruption” and vow to do a better job of weeding out candidates who cast the party in a bigoted or narrow-minded light.

In some ways, it was the beginning of the end for Wildrose.

Now, Mr. Kenney can’t afford to have a bozo eruption of his own. It’s unclear what resolutions, among the many put forward by riding associations around the province, will make the final cut this weekend. However, some proposed motions have already begun leaking out, including ones around schools and religion, which is often a toxic mix. Sex education is another touchy topic. Gun rights another. Bozo eruptions can come in many forms, including policies that could scare Albertans off the UCP option. They could anger more moderate conservatives in the party as well, those who come from the old Tory side of the family.

Mr. Kenney is a pragmatist but also a social conservative, which complicates things. He and his UCP caucus voted against an NDP bill preventing schools from outing kids (by telling their parents) who join gay-straight alliances. The UCP leader said the legislation impinged on parental rights. Many outside the party’s base were uncomfortable with that position. While in Ottawa, Mr. Kenney was a consistent “no” vote on allowing same-sex marriage. The provincial NDP believe attitudes on social issues that are generally at odds with modern-day Alberta will ultimately trip Mr. Kenney and the UCP up.

We’ll see.

By next week, we’ll have a much better idea of what the UCP exactly is, as it begins to build a platform upon which it will run in next year’s election. We should have some sense of its values, whether it’s a party committed to tolerance and diversity or one reflecting a less accepting and open-minded view of the world.

Beyond social issues, the UCP also has to begin formulating tenets around other contentious areas, such as the environment. It’s easy to be against Ms. Notley’s carbon tax, as Mr. Kenney is, but what does he and his party intend to replace it with, if anything? Alberta had a very dark global image when it comes to the environment. The suite of environmental laws brought in by the NDP has greatly helped to reshape that reputation.

Does Mr. Kenney and the UCP intend on dragging Alberta back into prehistoric times, where it’s once again a pollution free-for-all? That would look especially bad if Alberta gets the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion of which it is desperately in need, one the federal government committed to in exchange for the environmental measures Ms. Notley introduced. Is Mr. Kenney and the UCP prepared to renege on that quid pro quo agreement?

There is a very good chance the UCP could form government in Alberta in a year’s time. This convention should give us some idea of what that could look like.