Red Deer was the place to be for provincial politics on Saturday, as both the Alberta Party’s annual general meeting (AGM) and a conference hosted by conservative think tank Manning Centre were held in the central Alberta city.
“What I hear very often is, people are concerned about a binary choice of extremes: you either have to be a left or a right,” Cochrane said. “And many Albertans say, ‘I like a little bit from the left and a little bit from the right, and I want a centrist alternative.'”
Clark’s decision has triggered a leadership race that could give the Alberta Party a higher profile leading into the 2019 provincial election.
Around 400 people attended the sold-out AGM, compared to 59 last year. Both Cochrane and Clark said the attendance shows Albertans are rejecting polarization and want something progressive and centrist.
“We have former Wildrosers here and we have former New Democrats here, I think that kinda makes us the centre,” Cochrane said.
The party has attracted some former members of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative party, who were unhappy with the merger with the Wildrose party that resulted in the creation of the UCP.
Several former PC members at the Alberta Party AGM said they don’t want to go back to “the good ‘ol days.” Some think Kenney’s UCP is too socially conservative and are looking for a more moderate option.
“Alberta doesn’t need to return to some past — it needs to be prepared for the future and that’s why I’m here,” said Doug Griffiths, a former PC cabinet minister who was a MLA for 13 years.
“You don’t go back to the way things were to prepare for the future. You can talk about doing that all day and preying on people’s frustration and their anger. I want to talk about what’s possible for the future of this province and where we’re going to go.”
Other former Tories in attendance included former cabinet minister Stephen Khan, former PC party president Katherine O’Neill and former MLA Dave Quest. He said they weren’t there for a hostile takeover of the Alberta Party — adding that was the case with Kenney and the creation of UCP.
“I’m a fiscal conservative, as I believe the Alberta Party is, but we also have to take into account the social issues and the needs of people in Alberta.
“I don’t think the UCP will take our social issues seriously — as a matter of fact, they very rarely talk about our social issues. I find that quite disturbing.”
Edmonton city councillor Michael Walters — who unsuccessfully ran for the Alberta Party in 2012 — was at the AGM and introduced Clark, who received a standing ovation as he took to the the stage for his keynote speech.
Clark said the leadership race will bring new energy, members and donors to the Alberta Party — and said he hasn’t ruled out running again for leader.
He said the goal is to build a party Alberta can be proud of — something to vote for, not against. Clark called Saturday’s AGM a “turning point” for the party and the province.
Clark asked for Albertans to give the party a chance, saying he believes the Alberta Party will win government in 2019.
“The party with the biggest bank account doesn’t always win. And, you know, Jason Kenney and the UCP may have a strong political organization, but I don’t believe they connect with modern Alberta. I really don’t,” Clark said.
Clark expects a new party leader will be chosen by February.
While the AGM was taking place at a hotel, across town several hundred people were gathered for the Manning Networking Conference at Red Deer College. It was the first time the conservative think tank has held a regional conference in Alberta; it typically holds a conference on a national level in Ottawa.
The event was put on by the Manning Centre, which trains conservatives for active political life and aims to influence politics by generating new policy ideas. The networking event featured presentations on modern campaigning, strengthening social policy, and restoring growth and prosperity in Alberta.
“This conference is about the modernization of conservatism: what will it mean in the next century?” said Michael Binnion, chairman of the Manning Foundation. “And what better place in Canada to talk about the renewal and modernization of conservatism than right here in Alberta, the cradle of conservatism in Canada.”
Opening remarks were presented by former Wildrose leader and unsuccessful UCP leadership candidate Brian Jean, and former interm UCP leader Nathan Cooper. Kenney presented closing remarks in the late afternoon.
While there were notable UCP members speaking, Binnion said the event is non-partisan.
“The whole vision for Preston Manning was to bring all the clans of conservatism together: partisan and non-partisan.”
The Manning Centre was founded by Preston Manning: a former MP and leader of the Reform Party, which eventually evolved and merged with other parties into what is now the current Conservative Party of Canada.
Preston is the son of Ernest Manning, who was premier of Alberta from 1943 to 1968 under the Social Credit Party.