Jason Kenney announced his bid for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative (PC) party at a Calgary event Wednesday, with a push to unite the right and criticisms of what he called the “accidental NDP government” currently in power.
“I’ve decided to seek the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta seeking an explicit mandate, to unite with the Wildrose Party and all like-minded Albertans so we can defeat the NDP and put this province back on the right track.”
“We must fight the ideological agenda of this accidental NDP government to limit the damage that they do to our province now and we must do everything within our power to eliminate the risk of a second NDP term which would be catastrophic to the long-term future of Alberta.”
Albertans who spoke to Global News after the announcement had mixed reactions to the Kenney candidacy.
Dario Bott called it a “tough task” but said he wished Kenney luck, while others seemed to disagree with Kenney’s description of an “accidental NDP government.”
“I think the NDP won for a reason and despite the fact some of the things they are doing right now are a bit controversial with people, I think that they came in because people wanted a change,” Melissa May said.
In his speech, Kenney shared his recent experiences as minister of citizenship and immigration, saying his most enriching work was working with new Canadians and members of cultural communities to turn “hundreds of thousands of natural, intuitive small-c conservatives into big-C Conservatives.”
He said details of his plan to unite the right would be released Thursday, and acknowledged many from both the PCs and Wildrose have legitimate concerns about the prospect of change.
WATCH: Alberta opposition leaders react to Jason Kenny announcement
“I don’t care what some of the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ say, the talking heads, I know what Albertans are saying,” Kenney said. “Polling shows that two thirds of Wildrose and PC voters support a single, united party and that’s not even with anybody proposing one right now. And it’s what we have done already together in something called the Conservative Party of Canada.”
Wildrose leader Brian Jean said the party is willing to listen to discussions about a merger, but wouldn’t comment directly on Kenney’s candidacy.
“Truly, if the PCs want to participate in consolidating the conservatives, as the Wildrose has done in the last year – and I have been very clear that we are consolidating conservatives; I’m very open to it – then I think they have to choose that leader who will consolidate conservatives. If they choose that leader that they believe will do that, then let’s talk,” Jean said Thursday evening.
“We’ve got our dancing shoes on and we’re more than happy to do some dancing with them.”
He stressed he’ll push for a democratic debate on the prospects of unity between the two parties, promising to avoid the floor-crossing of Wildrose MLAs to the Tories two years ago.
“There were some good people involved in that and I’m sure many good intentions. But we must ensure that unity is pursued and achieved openly and transparently, not through secret back-room deals. And most importantly grassroots members must have the final say on any proposed agreement.”
The federal Conservative MP delivered a lengthy speech at noon and took no questions from reporters before he left for Grande Prairie, Alta., and then on to Edmonton Thursday.
Kenney’s political history includes having played a major role in uniting the right and forming the federal Conservative Party.
Radio host and ex-politician Danielle Smith, who led the mass floor-crossing of Wildrose MLAs to the Tories in December 2014 referenced in his speech, said prior to the announcement she wishes Kenny well but isn’t sure he can win.
“There’s a big cultural difference between the Wildrose, the Progressive Conservatives, even the federal Conservatives,” Smith added. “I think one of the things that he may be misjudging is just how progressive Calgary and Edmonton are.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Tuesday he thinks running for premier is like running for mayor in some ways: “it’s hard to hide behind the party; you have to run on your own merits.”
“I think a lot of MLAs, Members of Parliament, don’t always understand that people don’t know them as well as they know their party,” Nenshi told reporters.
“So it’ll be an interesting opportunity for him to introduce himself to Albertans and see what they think. But he’s got a very long record and so he has to determine whether or not that record is going to be attractive to Albertans.”
Prior to Kenny’s announcement Wednesday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said she didn’t know what impact Kenney would have on political discourse in Alberta.
“At this point, my focus is different than many of the so-called conservative party leaders and party leader wannabes,” she said. “My focus is moving forward on the values that we talked to Albertans about in the last election, standing with Albertans during hard times, not asking them to make bigger sacrifices, investing in the future, not investing in austerity. And moving forward with an inclusive society and one where prosperity is better shared.”
Smith suggested Kenney is “more of a social conservative” when it comes to abortion, LGBTQ rights, pot legalization and assisted dying—issues she calls “foundational for why people join political parties.”
“The question will be: can he win the PC leadership? … That’s the first step towards any merger process, and I think at this point it’s kind of 50/50, maybe even less.”
Smith said a second potential problem is the sentiment from some that both Wildrose and the PC brands are “too damaged for either of them to be successful.”
The decision for Kenney to run is not sitting well with all current PC MLAs.
Sandra Jansen has said that if the party turns further to the right under Kenney, she may leave.
“If somebody comes in and they make a decision that it’s not going to be the progressive party anymore then I won’t be a part of that,” Jansen said in a past interview.
The PCs will launch their leadership race in October. The leadership convention will be held in Calgary in March.
With files from Gary Bobrovitz