The gloves came off at Alberta’s Progressive Conservative leadership debate Sunday, with three candidates telling former Conservative MP Jason Kenney his plan to unite with the right-leaning Wildrose is cynical and a shortsighted folly.
About 650 people attended the debate where candidates Stephen Khan, Jason Kenney, Byron Nelson and Richard Starke sold their vision for the Tories.
“Folks, this is a hostile takeover of our Progressive Conservative party,” candidate Stephen Khan told those attending the debate at a southside Edmonton hall, to a smattering of cheers and boos.
PC legislature member Richard Starke referred to Kenney as “the career politician” and said political parties have to be about principles and not simply “a quest for power.”
“The career politician is focused on the next election, but I am focused on what happens after that,” Starke said, the MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster.
Kenney is the only one of the four candidates running on a platform to dissolve the party and seek a merger with the fellow right-centre Wildrose party.
Kenney said vote splitting is harming the conservative movement and allowing Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP to come up the middle to victory to implement policies that are hurting families, killing jobs and stifling initiative.
Kenney told the crowd Alberta “is the beating heart of free enterprise in Canada and we cannot afford to have that beating heart stilled by an ideological socialist government.”
The Wildrose party began more than a decade ago as a splinter group of provincial Tories disaffected with a party they believed had become fiscally wasteful, was governed from the top down and didn’t respect private land rights.
While Kenney said he believes all conservatives share core values of limited government and free enterprise, the other candidates say the social conservatism of the Wildrose makes it a poor fit for their big-tent party.
“I can’t stand by and allow our conservative family to be torn apart by the contrived and hollow promise of unity,” Khan said.
“(It’s) an undertaking that will not only result in four more years of NDP rule but will surely be the end of the party that (former PC premier) Peter Lougheed built.”
Candidate Byron Nelson, a Calgary lawyer, agreed, saying a merger is “an unrealistic, unworkable plan that will only lead to the destruction of the party and the re-election of the NDP.”
Party members will convene March 18 in Calgary to select a new leader in a delegated convention.
The idea has exposed divisions in the Wildrose. Leader Brian Jean is taking a wait-and-see approach, while finance critic Derek Fildebrandt is openly pushing for a merger.
The PC party was ousted from its 44-year-long rule to third party status by Rachel Notley’s NDP party in the May 2015 provincial election. The late Jim Prentice stepped down after losing the election, and Calgary-Hays MLA Ric McIver became interim leader.
with files from