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Alberta’s PC leadership candidates make last-minute pitches ahead of vote

Delegates hold riding signs at the Alberta PC Party leadership convention in Calgary, Alta., Friday, March 17, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The three men vying to shape the future of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives – including one who wants to kill it – made their penultimate pitch to party members Friday, with the two underdogs taking shots at the frontrunner without mentioning his name.

Jason Kenney, the former federal cabinet minister leading the pack, drew on history as he painted Alberta as a strong province under "assault" from the ruling New Democratic Party. His challengers, Richard Starke, a PC Member of the Legislature, and Byron Nelson, a failed MLA candidate, depicted Mr. Kenney's plan to unite Alberta's right as risky and potentially beneficial for the NDP.

Roughly 1,700 delegates are eligible to vote in Saturday's leadership contest. The convention got off to a rough start, delayed by about two hours, frustrating early birds who were at the registration table when the doors opened. The first round of voting happens Saturday afternoon.

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Mr. Kenney pulled up to the Calgary convention in his "Unity Truck," a blue Dodge Ram 1500 he toured the province in. He left the vehicle idling in front of the downtown convention centre during a short press conference. He then entered the convention centre, leaving aides to deal with the truck. His competitors made no such splash.

The politician, by far the most organized of the trio, wants to dissolve the PC party and unite its members with those in the Wildrose Party. Under his plan, the united conservative party would then challenge Premier Rachel Notley's NDP in the 2019 provincial election. Mr. Kenney has held off on pitching policy, arguing that will be up to members of the new party. He has, however, disavowed the carbon tax and railed against the government's spending plans.

"The New Democrats aren't bad people. They just have bad ideas," Mr. Kenney told the crowd.

"From the Aboriginal people who were the first to create communities in this rugged environment…to the Mounties who brought the rule of law, to the fur traders from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley who built the first mosque in Canada, to the man in sheepskin coats from the steppes of Ukraine who cleared tough land and dominated [it] with their onion-domed churches, to the English ranches and American oil men, to our newest Albertans," he said. "All of us, together, have built one of the most prosperous and generous societies in all of human history."

Alberta, he said, is "under assault. It is being damaged every day by an ideological government that takes its inspiration from the failed theories of socialism. By a resentment of success. A distrust of enterprise. A mistaken belief that the powerful state is a greater force for good than strong families and free women and men."

The NDP came into power in 2015, ending more than four decades of PC rule. Mr. Kenney entered the race last summer, before the campaign officially started. He leans furthest to the right, and his critics argue that could weaken the party in an election.

"I am progressive and I am conservative and our party is best when we are both," Mr. Starke said at the convention, speaking after Mr. Kenney. Mr. Starke, who represents Vermilion-Lloydminster, pitched himself as a party man who did not abandon the team when the PCs lost in 2015.

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"I didn't leave then. I won't leave now. You'll have to pry my Progressive Conservative membership card out of my cold dead hands," he said to cheers.

Mr. Kenney's proposed path to power, he said without mentioning his competitor's name, is a gamble.

"You can choose a long, convoluted, and risky path of forming a new untested party while destroying established ones, drafting a constitution, debating principles, writing bylaws, building constituency associations, and just because we've had some much fun with this one, you get to have another leadership contest," Mr. Starke said.

Byron Nelson, the lesser known of the trio, had the final word.

"I want to lead a party that governs according to principles and for people, not just for power," he said. Mr. Kenney, he said, again without specifically naming the former federal cabinet minister, has not presented a "specific plan" and should the PCs back Mr. Kenney, they may be handing the NDP the next election.

"Their best shot for a second term is to call an election while we conservatives have our collective pants down," Mr. Nelson said. "I want what's best for Albertans. Not by duct taping two broken parties together but by renewing and rebuilding right here and right now…the greatest political party in the history of our province."

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Both Mr. Starke and Mr. Nelson acknowledged prior to the convention they will need to win over more delegates to claim victory.

Mr. Kenney, prior to the start of the convention, pledged he would stick with the PCs even if he was unable to lure the Wildrose into the fold. Wildrose leader Brian Jean has said he is open to uniting the two parties and would run for leader should members of both organizations opt to hold hands. His proposed timeline for unification and another leadership convention is speedier than Mr. Kenney's schedule. While scores of conservatives favour uniting, a merger would not happen smoothly. Centrists in the PC party are fearful of Wildrose's most right-leaning members and vice versa. One of the PC's most centrist members, for example, left the leadership race in part because she believed it was abandoning its socially progressive principles. The MLA, Sandra Jansen, crossed the floor to the NDP.

Katherine O'Neill is the president of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta. She urged members to back the eventual leader.

"No matter what happens tomorrow, I ask you all to stand behind the winner because together, we are stronger," Ms. O'Neill told delegates. "Together, we will help elect the next premier of Alberta."

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About the Author

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

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