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Alberta Tory MPs lining up behind Kenney in provincial leadership race

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Federal Conservatives point to the ex-minister’s fundraising skills and his drive to unite the right as reasons for supporting him.

Jason Kenney served as the MP for Calgary Midnapore and Calgary Southeast for 19 years before leaving Parliament last year to pursue the leadership of Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party, the beginning of a bid to unite the province's two conservative parties. Mr. Kenney's next test is to try and win the Oct. 28 election of the first leader of the new United Conservative Party. He's set to compete against former federal caucus-mate and provincial Wildrose leader Brian Jean. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Ex-federal minister Jason Kenney is expected to enter the leadership race for Alberta’s new United Conservative Party with support from numerous federal Conservative MPs from the province.

Several federal Tories from Alberta told The Hill Times they supported Mr. Kenney’s expected candidacy to lead the new United Conservative Party, and believed the ex-Calgary Midnapore MP had substantial support among federal Conservatives.

“I think that Jason has pretty strong support from the Alberta caucus,” said Conservative MP Jim Eglinski (Yellowhead, Alta.), who said he would support Mr. Kenney’s leadership bid.  

Other supporters include Alberta Conservative MPs Ron Liepert (Calgary Signal Hill), a Progressive Conservative MLA in the province from 2004 to 2012; Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend); Garnett Genuis (Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan); and Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton).

Barring a last-minute surprise, the CBC reported Mr. Kenney is expected to enter the leadership race Saturday. Former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, another ex-federal Conservative MP, formally declared on Monday that he’s running. Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer has indicated he’ll run. Derek Fildebrandt, a Wildrose MLA, is also weighing a run at the leadership.

Federal Conservative MPs from Alberta were strong supporters of the merger in the weeks before last weekend’s vote, in which 95 per cent of the members of both right-of-centre provincial parties endorsed their unification. The vote paved the way for a leadership contest for the new party, set to wrap with a vote on Oct. 28. The party named MLA Nathan Cooper as interim leader Monday.

Conservative MP John Barlow (Foothills, Alta.) said he backed the merger in part because had grown tired of “sitting on the sidelines” during provincial election campaigns in Alberta featuring two conservative parties, for fear of alienating supporters of one party by campaigning for the other.

Several federal Conservatives from the province said the vote on the merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties had been the talk of their town for months, elbowing out federal issues in their discussions with constituents.

Mr. Liepert pointed to Mr. Kenney’s proven ability to fundraise—he drummed up $1.3-million in his campaign to become PC leader earlier this year, and was known to be a major fundraiser for the federal Conservatives—and time shared in the federal Conservative caucus as reasons he and other federal Tories would support Mr. Kenney to lead the United Conservative Party.

Mr. Kenney came to Ottawa as a Reform Party MP in 1997, and went on to win back-to-back elections under the Canadian Alliance and Conservative banners, working along the way as minister for immigration, defence, and employment, and secretary of state for multiculturalism. With the Conservatives in opposition federally, he jumped into provincial politics last summer.

Mr. Jean was in the Conservative caucus with Mr. Kenney from 2004 to 2014, serving as parliamentary secretary for transport, infrastructure, and communities. He was elected Wildrose leader in March 2015.

Mr. Eglinski said he believed Mr. Kenney had support from Canadians of many ethnic backgrounds, and a better network of contacts across Canada than his likely rivals. 

“I think that would be a very strong asset for a premier,” he said.

Mr. Genuis and several other Conservatives said they would support Mr. Kenney in part because he was the driving force behind the PC-Wildrose merger that unified Alberta’s conservatives. Mr. Kenney had sought the leadership of the PC Party on a platform of merging with the Wildrose.

Getting back in the game: ‘It’s pretty tough to have to sit on the sidelines and watch your team lose,’ says Conservative MP John Barlow, right, pictured at a February charity hockey match in Ottawa. The split among his right-leaning constituents between the Alberta Wildrose and PC parties prevented him from getting involved in previous provincial elections, he says. In 2015, the NDP formed government in Alberta for the first time ever. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. Jeneroux said federal Conservatives could help Mr. Kenney by leaning on their networks and connections in the province, introducing him to new audiences to speak with and win over.

Mr. Jean can count at least one ally in the federal Alberta Conservative caucus as well, however. Blaine Calkins (Red Deer-Lacombe, Alta.) said he would support Mr. Jean, a longtime personal friend, for leadership of the new party, though he said he believed Mr. Kenney would also make a good party leader.

Mr. Calkins is the chair of the federal Conservative Party’s Alberta caucus, but said his opinion on the leadership race was a personal one, and not representative of that caucus.

He said he did not know which candidate would get the most support from the federal Conservative caucus.

“There’s people that tend to be in the Wildrose camp, there’s people that tend to be in the PC camp, but that doesn’t mean that when it comes to leadership, the troops stay in both camps,” he said.

Several Conservative MPs from Alberta told The Hill Times they supported both Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean’s candidacy, or that it was too early to go public with their support for any candidate for the United Conservative Party leadership. About 20 of the 28 Alberta Conservative MPs were contacted for this story, though many did not respond. 

Former interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose is unlikely to enter the race, as had been rumoured to be a possibility, said Mr. Liepert and Mr. Barlow.

Ms. Ambrose also told The Calgary Sun in February she would not be running for the leadership of a united Alberta conservative party. She is currently working as a fellow at the Wilson Center Canada Institute in Washington, D.C., and sitting on the board of TransAlta Corp. power company.

Several Alberta MPs have connections to one of the two merging right-of-centre provincial parties. Len Webber (Calgary Confederation, Alta.) and Mr. Liepert were previously PC MLAs, while Shannon Stubbs (Lakeland, Alta.) ran unsuccessfully for both the PC and Wildrose parties, and worked as chief of staff to former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith. Ms. Stubbs is also married to former Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw. She could not be reached for comment.

Tories freer to campaign in next Alberta election

Several federal Conservatives said the PC-Wildrose merger was essential to ensure the conservative vote would no longer be split to the benefit of the left-leaning NDP, currently in power in Alberta.

Mr. Barlow said the split among his own right-leaning constituents between the Wildrose and PC parties had also prevented him from getting involved in previous provincial elections.

“We want to get out there and campaign during provincial elections, we want to support our conservative candidate. But for the last seven or eight years, we haven’t been able to do that,” he said.

“It’s pretty tough to have to sit on the sidelines and watch your team lose.”

Mr. Barlow said he had attended events hosted by both Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney in his riding, and that it was too early to endorse a candidate to lead the new party.

Should it unseat the NDP, Alberta’s new United Conservative Party would have to avoid the errors of the former Progressive Conservative Party that led to the creation of the Wildrose Party from disaffected PCs, and the PCs’ eventual defeat by the NDP in 2015 after nearly 44 years in power.

“Humility is a big one,” said Conservative MP Pat Kelly (Calgary Rocky Ridge, Alta.), adding the party had already made big strides in that respect.

“Nobody likes arrogance. Nobody wants to ever get the sense that a party thinks it has the right to govern,” he said.

Fiscal responsibility and running balanced budgets should be pillars of the new party, said MP Michael Cooper. “That was the one big issue that caused a lot of people who had supported the party to look elsewhere.”

Ultimately, the PC Party’s incredible multi-decade run in power meant a reset would eventually be inevitable, said several of the Alberta Tories.

“Time becomes an enemy of every government…sometimes you go down a path that you can’t get back out of,” said Mr. Calkins.

“When the base is energized and reinvigorated, you don’t have those problems.”

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

Alberta Conservative MPs

Ziad Aboultaif Edmonton Manning
John Barlow Foothills
Bob Benzen Calgary Heritage
Blaine Calkins Red Deer-Lacombe
Michael Cooper St. Albert-Edmonton
Kerry Diotte Edmonton Griesbach
Earl Dreeshen Red Deer-Mountain View
Jim Eglinski Yellowhead
Garnett Genuis Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan
Rachael Harder Lethbridge
Matt Jeneroux Edmonton Riverbend
Pat Kelly Calgary Rocky Ridge
Tom Kmiec Calgary Shepard
Stephanie Kusie Calgary Midnapore
Mike Lake Edmonton-Wetaskiwin
Ron Liepert Calgary Signal Hill
Kelly McCauley Edmonton West
Glen Motz Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner
Deepak Obhrai Calgary Forest Lawn
Michelle Rempel Calgary Nose Hill
Blake Richards Banff-Airdrie
Martin Shields Bow River
Kevin Sorenson Battle River-Crowfoot
Shannon Stubbs Lakeland
Arnold Viersen Peace River-Westlock
Chris Warkentin Grande Prairie-Mackenzie
Len Webber Calgary Confederation
David Yurdiga Fort McMurray-Cold Lake
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