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opinion

Jason Kenney is about to announce his candidacy for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, running on a platform of a merger with the Wildrose Party. The purpose is to avoid splitting the right-wing vote in the next provincial election and thereby maximize chances of defeating the governing NDP.

In one sense, it's a logical step. In the three other Western provinces, conservative-minded voters have settled on a single alternative to confront the NDP – the BC Liberals, the Saskatchewan Party and the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives. History teaches that while unity doesn't guarantee success, it offers the best prospects for victory against the social democrats.

But it's also an audacious step. I can't think of a historical precedent for someone winning the leadership of a party on a platform of merging with another party. In the 2002 Canadian Alliance leadership race, those who advocated merger with the federal PCs lost. Stephen Harper won by promising to save the Canadian Alliance; he didn't begin to advocate a merger until a year later, after an electoral disappointment in an Ontario by-election.

Mr. Kenney will have several advantages in the PC race. After more than 20 years in public life, he is well known and personally popular among Alberta conservatives. He is a vigorous speaker and debater, with enough experience to avoid the traps of political correctness. Money will not be a problem; he was second only to Stephen Harper as a political fundraiser in the province. Drawing on his federal connections, he can probably sign up tens of thousands of new members to support him in the provincial race.

The PCs, however, have gone back to their old system of a delegated convention for leadership selection, so Mr. Kenney cannot win simply by selling memberships. There will a separate process in each constituency association – 87 in all – to choose the delegates to the nominating convention. Mr. Kenney will have to build a field organization to fight 87 battles, to ensure that memberships are sold in the necessary ridings and that new members turn out to vote at the right time and place. It's doable, but it's not easy.

There will also be battles over the campaign rules, which have not yet been announced in any detail. Long-term PC loyalists may propose rules to make life more difficult for an outsider such as Mr. Kenney, e.g., requiring a long period of previous membership in the party to be eligible to vote in the delegate selection process. There may also be shenanigans at the local level – challenging the credentials of new members, changing the dates of meetings, booking venues that are too small and then flooding them ahead of time with your own supporters. Ideally, Mr. Kenney should have his own supporters on the boards of PC constituency associations to ensure that his side is not discriminated against, but there may not be time for that.

If Mr. Kenney wins the PC leadership, he then has to persuade Wildrose to negotiate a merger. Following a PC victory, his position would be strong, making it difficult for Wildrose not to come to the table.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and other prominent members of the party are already on record as favouring a merger; how could they refuse to discuss an offer from Mr. Kenney, whom grassroots Wildrose members will see as one of their own? The mechanics of ratification are complicated but not impossible – 75-per-cent approval at a special general meeting called by the executive council.

Then there would have to be a leadership contest for the new party, after which a general election would loom. Mr. Kenney is letting himself in for two years of non-stop campaigning. But the game is worth the candle (what does that old proverb mean?).

For those on the conservative side of the street, politics in Alberta since the last election has been a Seinfeldian show about nothing – endless chatter leading nowhere. Mr. Kenney's bold manoeuvre will give them a show about something – how actually to win back control of the government in the next election.