Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jason Kenney delivered an organizational show of strength at the party’s annual policy meeting Saturday.
Kenney’s team bused in youth delegates, his team steered decisions on policy resolutions on issues like the carbon tax, and Kenney brought in former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Kenney, a former Conservative MP, said he is simply harnessing the nascent widespread support for a unified conservative movement.
“I welcome a healthy democratic competition. That’s what this is all about,” Kenney told reporters.
“It’s not organizational sophistication so much as grassroots support that is being manifest here.”
The weekend convention was held to discuss and debate changes to policy, but was overshadowed by the party’s leadership race.
Six candidates are vying to become leader, with a delegated convention set for Calgary in March.
Kenney is the lone leadership candidate running on a platform to merge the PCs with the fellow right-centre Wildrose party.
He said a united conservative movement is critical to avoid the vote-splitting that would allow Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP to win a second mandate, in the 2019 election.
Kenney’s team members were visible in the hallways of the convention centre, in blue or camouflage-coloured “Unite Alberta” baseball hats.
In debates, they defeated a motion to accept the principle of a carbon tax as long as it is revenue neutral. Kenney has stated he is against the NDP carbon tax in any form.
Alberta’s carbon tax takes effect on Jan. 1. It is expected to bring in $3 billion a year, hiking the costs of heating bills and gasoline at the pumps.
Kenney supporters also spoke against a resolution to give more power to the party’s board and president.
They also helped defeat a motion that would have prevented a party member from holding a membership in another party. Such a motion aids Kenney given he is seeking to join forces with the Wildrose.
Kenney’s team bused in scores of youth delegates in voting for youth wing leadership positions. The youth wing has a dedicated number of votes for the delegated convention.
Harper, with Kenney beside him, spoke to the youth members in a closed-door meeting and then posed for pictures in a lineup that snaked out the door.
Kenney said Harper asked how he could help and spoke to the delegates about the importance of uniting conservatives and “that Alberta is in trouble right now with the NDP.”
Leadership candidate Donna Kennedy-Glans questioned Kenney’s methods. She said party members have already voted to steer a centrist course of fiscal conservatism and social progressivism.
The Wildrose party is fiscally and more socially conservative, and Kennedy-Glans suggested Kenney is steering PC party policy to fit the Wildrose mould.
“There’s obviously something afoot here. We need all of us to mobilize the centre,” Kennedy-Glans told reporters.
“I think there are people here who haven’t held Progressive Conservative memberships for very long. And I think that some of those people have very social conservative values.”
The other candidates in the race are current PC MLAs Sandra Jansen and Richard Starke, former PC cabinet minister Stephen Khan and Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson.
On Saturday night, the six candidates debated issues at a leadership forum.
The other five candidates, to varying degrees, criticized Kenney’s merger plan as ill-conceived and cynical.
“We deserve a plan for a party and Alberta that is more than a quest for power,” Jansen told the 1,100 members at the forum, referring to Kenney only as the “unite the right candidate.”
“We deserve a plan that will inspire Albertans to vote for us in 2019,” she said.
Starke told the forum: “We cannot put power ahead of principle. If Albertans view our actions solely as a thinly veiled grab for power we are telling them that we have learned nothing from the 2015 (election) defeat.”
The Wildrose party has said it is taking a wait-and-see approach to the PC merger debate but believes in principle that conservatives are stronger together.