United Conservatives will meet their leader this weekend, allowing the party to move on to what they see as the pressing business of defeating Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government in the provincial election less than two years away.
The United Conservative Party hopes to capitalize on public anger over government policies such as the carbon tax and angst over massive deficits and a still-brittle economy. For their part, the NDP will assail the United Conservatives for their positions on social issues and will attempt to rally public-sector workers to vote against UCP calls to roll back public-sector salaries and implement hiring freezes.
"The fortunes of the UCP will be determined by the leader," said Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at MacEwan University in Edmonton. "The key for the conservative voting block in Alberta – and this amalgamation of the two parties – is to have a leader to be the face of the party and to be able to set the terrain for policy development and the building of constituency associations in preparation for the next election," which is likely to be scheduled between March 1 and May 31, 2019.
The leadership contest between Brian Jean, Jason Kenney and Doug Schweitzer has defined the early existence of the UCP, which was created when members of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties overwhelmingly voted to merge in July.
The candidates agree in broad strokes that the province – which could have a $94-billion debt by 2020, according to one credit rating agency – needs to massively curtail spending and attract more business investment. But party members must choose between the three based on who they believe can win a general election, who would make the best premier and which candidate's social views best reflect their own – including where they stand on controversial issues such as sex ed and educational choice for parents.
Tensions between the camps of Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney ran throughout the leadership campaign and occasionally flared in public. For instance, Mr. Jean's comment this summer that the days of "hard-right" governments in Alberta are over was a veiled slight directed at Mr. Kenney. Mr. Jean also tried to link the former federal cabinet minister to the Sept. 30 attacks on a police officer and pedestrians in Edmonton by asking how Somali national Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, the alleged perpetrator, got into Canada while Mr. Kenney was in charge of immigration. (Mr. Kenney called the comments "ridiculous" and noted his changes to improve immigration security screening while in Ottawa.)
Meanwhile, the political attacks on Mr. Jean, the former Wildrose leader, have come mostly through Mr. Kenney's allies. Jeff Callaway, the former Wildrose president who dropped out of the leadership race early this month to support Mr. Kenney, used his time on stage during debates in September to criticize Mr. Jean, accusing him of not focusing enough on Wildrose's "grassroots" members. Mr. Jean says he has been especially angered that Mr. Kenney's supporters have used social media to raise questions about his commitment to Christian values.
But Mr. Kenney did put himself in the fray when he criticized Mr. Jean for running a deficit of more than $300,000 at the Wildrose legislature offices, with Mr. Jean arguing that budgets are seasonal and that there won't be a deficit by the end of the year.
At the same time, Mr. Schweitzer targeted Mr. Kenney's reputation as a social conservative – based on the latter's university days as an anti-abortion spokesman and his current belief that in some cases parents should be told if their kids have joined a gay-straight alliance at school. Mr. Schweitzer has said Mr. Kenney's positions, or lack of clarity, on these issues will be an albatross for the party in the next election.
United Conservative Party candidate Brian Jean. (Chris Bolin/ The Globe and Mail)
When Brian Jean explains why he wants to be Alberta's premier – saying what he has now said hundreds of times – he tells the personal story of losing his 24-year-old son in March, 2015. It's still painful and raw.
"It's the only way I can fix health care," said Mr. Jean, 54, taking a moment to compose himself in a recent interview. "That's what it's all about."
Mr. Jean's family has been in Fort McMurray for 50 years, much longer than most in a community whose population boomed only in the past two decades, alongside oil sands development. He describes himself as a hunter and trapper. But his mother, Frances, started the first newspaper in town, and his family's City Centre Group Inc. now owns commercial real estate, a car wash and a parking lot.
His son Michael was set to take over the business when he died after what Mr. Jean describes as months in and out of hospital, having the wrong medicines administered and his lymphoma misdiagnosed. "We were building a hotel," Mr. Jean said, speaking about his son's role in the business.
Outside politics, there is much Mr. Jean could do. But he says he is motivated daily to improve the health-care system by working on issues such as cutting wait times and building a single e-record system that he says will promote patient-centred care.
He is the only sitting MLA in the leadership race. Before becoming Wildrose leader in 2015 – and rebuilding the party from a mass floor-crossing to the PC party in late 2014 – he had sat as a Conservative backbencher for a decade. He doesn't have anything near the federal endorsements of his chief rival, Mr. Kenney, but he has some high-profile supporters, including former TransCanada chief executive Hal Kvisle and former hockey star Theo Fleury, as well as the only two women in the UCP caucus, Leela Aheer and Angela Pitt.
His former campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, has stepped away from the day-to-day to move into his role as the federal Conservative Party's campaign chair for 2019, but Mr. Jean said he still provides regular advice.
Like Mr. Kenney, Mr. Jean says Alberta should take a harder line if the federal government implements energy policies that impede oil sands development or if other provinces try to block pipeline construction. Both men are calling for a provincial referendum on the Equalization Program, which would give Alberta leverage in talks regarding a new deal with Ottawa.
But Mr. Jean takes a softer tone in explaining why he wants a referendum. He says it's not about getting Albertans enraged, it's about providing a relief valve for people who are disappointed with Ottawa and other provinces.
"It's boiling to anger," he said. "That's why we have to have this referendum, so they can have their say."
His campaign push in the past week featured stops in both Edmonton and Calgary, where the UCP likely faces a greater challenge against the governing NDP. In the provincial capital, the UCP is less popular than in other parts of the province. Mr. Jean – the candidate with the highest polling numbers and the only one to hail from outside Calgary – says he's the only one who stands a chance of winning any seats in Edmonton in 2019.
Former MP Jason Kenney now running for the leadership of the newly unified United Conservative Party is photographed at the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner on Friday, October 20, 2017. (Chris Bolin/ The Globe and Mail)
If patrons of the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner all voted, Jason Kenney would have the leadership contest in the bag. He says that every time he sets foot in Calgary's most famous greasy spoon, often for media interviews, someone buys him breakfast.
But Mr. Kenney, 49, says his political popularity is broad. "We're feeling pretty confident," he said in the days before the vote.
Many view him as the frontrunner, and there's a lot of reasoning on his side. A former Conservative MP and cabinet minister, he has a wellspring of experience in the much-tougher political arena of Ottawa. He has a long list of political endorsements from federal Conservatives, and his campaign team brags they have more than 4,000 volunteers pounding the pavement on his behalf.
His Calgary-heavy cadre of powerful advisers and fundraisers includes GMP FirstEnergy's Jim Davidson and veteran political operative Cliff Fryers. John Weissenberger, a close friend and ally of former prime minister Stephen Harper, is his campaign manager. Mr. Kenney has a strong claim to being the main catalyst in Alberta's conservative unification movement.
Ultimately, he is trying to get people to look beyond the next election – to convince them that he will "be an effective premier at a very challenging time." He bristles at the suggestion his political success comes simply from his strength in organizing voting wings. "You can't organize non-support."
But Mr. Kenney is polarizing to many. Some still have bad memories of his pointed attacks on politicians during his days with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and what he describes as his "stylistically aggressive" performance in the House of Commons as an MP. In polls of the overall Alberta electorate, people do not appear to like Mr. Kenney as much as they do Mr. Jean – something that may be on party members' minds as they cast their ballots. Mr. Kenney says some UCP party members think he's just "from Ottawa."
His more conservative stance on social issues, past and present, continues to ruffle feathers and remains a point of attack for his critics and the NDP government, even though he refers to himself as a "mainstream, unhyphenated conservative." He never says much about his personal life and he agrees he's married to the job.
"My personal life isn't that …" he says, trailing off. "What am I going to do – talk about the latest book I read on the road or the latest movie I saw?"
United Conservative Party leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer. (Amber Bracken/ The Globe and Mail)
Doug Schweitzer's key moment during the leadership race may have come during the Lethbridge debate this month, when he gave an impassioned speech about the results of Calgary's municipal election.
"The left wing kicked our butt," he said of the Oct. 16 vote that saw incumbent Mayor Naheed Nenshi returned to office. "The NDP organizers were active. And young people showed up in droves."
The 38-year-old restructuring partner from the Calgary office of law firm Dentons is the least-known candidate of the three, with no experience in elected office. But Mr. Schweitzer has performed well in debates – getting strong applause from the live audiences – and has found some momentum with his argument that there has been a generational change and that the UCP needs to be "socially moderate."
He says that belief helped inform his decision to enter the leadership contest against Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean. And he argues that the new party is in danger of losing because the governing NDP will run its next election campaign on social issues – not the troubled state of the province's finances.
"I've seen a shift in politics here. And I don't think we can go back to a traditional conservative model and be successful," he said in an interview.
His past political experience is in organizing for others. He helped with the rebuilding of Manitoba's Progressive Conservative Party during Hugh McFadyen's tenure as leader. He is a long-time friend of Bill Smith – who challenged Mr. Nenshi in Calgary but lost – and ran Mr. Smith's successful 2009 bid for the PC Party presidency. He also headed the PC leadership campaign for Jim Prentice in 2014.
So his experience is in the backroom, but he has long been talked about as a leadership candidate by conservatives who want a youthful, energetic infusion to the party. His list of political endorsements is short, but his campaign's honorary chair is PC stalwart Peter Elzinga, who served as chief of staff to former Alberta premier Ralph Klein.
Although Mr. Schweitzer has two young daughters, he said this year was the right time for him to make a long-mulled leap into elected politics.
"With my training as a restructuring partner at the firm, it gives you a certain skill set to help turn around organizations and companies that are facing difficulty," he said. "We're facing a similar situation here in Alberta right now, where we need to turn this around."
Following a 2-1/2-day voting period by phone and online, the preferential ballot results of the leadership contest will be announced in Calgary on Saturday after 5 p.m. MT.