Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner is warning that whoever is elected as the new party leader on Sunday must be prepared with robust policy for the West.
Considering the Liberal government was shut out of Alberta in the last election and a western separatist party is in the wings, the next Conservative leader needs more for the province than a pledge to axe the carbon tax, said Rempel Garner, an Calgary MP since 2011.
“That’s how people will be making their decisions on how to vote in the next election in Alberta,” she said.
None of the four leadership candidates have roots in the West, a first in the party’s modern-day history.
The inaugural leader, Stephen Harper, was born in Ontario and moved to Alberta after high school. Rona Ambrose, who temporarily replaced him after he stepped down in 2015, was born and raised in the province.
Outgoing leader Andrew Scheer grew up in Ottawa, but has represented a Saskatchewan riding since 2004.
Rempel Garner was one of the few western MPs who considered a run at the top job. She said one of the reasons she opted not to run was the need to be an unabashed booster for her province.
After the Liberals lost what few seats they held in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the last election, Rempel Garner, with three other Conservative MPs, issued the “Buffalo Declaration.”
It was billed as an outline of structural reforms designed to make Alberta an equal player in Confederation. She said she’d hoped candidates would take up its ideas as part of their respective platforms.
That didn’t happen.
“That’s why I’ve struggled with my vote,” she said.
Leadership contender Erin O’Toole has a page in his platform devoted to Alberta, promising among other things to fix existing federal funding programs which top-up provincial revenues, a system that critics say can be unfair to Alberta.
Rival Peter MacKay references Alberta in his energy policy, an area where O’Toole attracted criticism for initially promising to remove subsidies on fossil fuels, though he later recanted.
Shannon Stubbs, who represents the central Alberta riding of Lakeland, agreed that the next leader has to get beyond promises to the oil and gas sector.
She said she wants a revival of conservative philosophy and positions and a more “substantial value proposition” for the province.
“More than just ‘We support some jobs, or we support certain infrastructure or we are against certain laws or are against certain taxes,”’ she said.
“I hope that the next leader and we as the Conservative party run on more than that for people from Alberta and the West.”
Stubbs and Rempel Garner are among the few Alberta MPs who haven’t publicly endorsed a candidate.
From the 33 Alberta MPs, MacKay has 13 endorsements and O’Toole 11, though he also counts among his backers Alberta Premier and former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney.
Leslyn Lewis has the support of Alberta MP Glen Motz — who also signed the Buffalo Declaration — while Derek Sloan has no sitting MPs in his corner.
Lewis, however, has seen a marked rise in her grassroots support in Alberta. She trails just behind O’Toole when it comes to individual donors from the province, where he is the fundraising leader.
The number of Conservative party members overall has risen by about 100,000 during to the race to around 269,500.
Among the ridings with the most members in the country is Foothills, parts of which were once the Calgary political home of both Harper and Preston Manning, the founder of the Reform party.
The Reform party would later become the Canadian Alliance and then merge with the Progressive Conservatives to form today’s Conservative party.
O’Toole has run in the spirit of the olden days, casting himself as a “True Blue” Tory.
But John Barlow, who currently represents Foothills, has endorsed MacKay, who was the leader of the PCs during the merger.
He said he feels the old-time Reformers in his riding want the same thing now as they did then: to win.
“What they are looking for is that leader who is going to beat Justin Trudeau, that leader who is going to win us seats in urban ridings, which we have to do,” he said.
But, many are seeing echoes of the Reform days in the formation of a new political party based in Alberta: Wexit. It is calling for either the West to separate or for major constitutional reform to give it more clout and is currently led by Jay Hill, who spent 22 years as an MP, including as Harper’s government House leader.
Rempel Garner stopped short of saying she’d cast her lot in with Wexit if the new Conservative leader doesn’t deliver, saying she still supports her party.
Albertans are watching closely, she said.
“This is real and we have to have a real response,” she said of the talk of separation.
“That is what I expect. Not just as a member of caucus but as an Albertan.”