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Tory leadership hopefuls mining Alberta’s angst

Deepak Obhrai speaks during the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday.

CODIE MCLACHLAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The energy that federal Conservative leadership contenders are trying to squeeze out of Alberta in the weeks ahead can't be measured in barrels.

It's the infinitely renewable resource of anger over high unemployment, pipeline delays and carbon pricing that candidates are trying to capture, to propel their own campaigns forward before the May leadership vote.

In Calgary, where the unemployment rate has hovered at a two-decade high of around 10 per cent since fall, organizers said 700 Conservatives paid $20 each to attend this week's leadership forum. At the event, immigration policy, issues of Canadian identity and motions regarding Islamophobia received scant mention as the candidates followed the mood of the crowd and swung hard on topics such as jobs and GDP.

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"The leadership race here in Alberta is more about the economy," said leadership contestant Deepak Obhrai, the MP for Calgary Forest Lawn, in an interview. He also said that political fundraising has slumped in tandem with the wealth levels in Alberta.

Each candidate in the crowded field of 14 is working hard to pay homage to Alberta, the bedrock of support for the party. Those actions include lionizing former prime minister Stephen Harper's fiscal record in government, winning endorsements from MPs and MLAs past and present, and making promises to lower taxes, build pipelines and get Albertans back to work.

The federal Liberals approved two major pipeline projects in the fall, and Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has made it her mission to get a new heavy oil pipeline project built to one of Canada's coasts. Still, many dyed-in-the-wool Alberta Conservatives are shaken to the core by Ms. Notley's government's implementation of a carbon tax at the depth of the worst downturn in decades. There is even greater mistrust surrounding Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's push for carbon pricing in the years ahead.

In a province that has lost much of its economic and political clout with the oil-price collapse that began in mid-2014, there are opportunities for a Conservative opposition party. Many of the leadership candidates have paid lip service to Alberta's contributions to the fortunes of the country during the more robust years, and have talked about restoring the province to its former glory – or protecting the oil and gas industry from federal Liberal government incursions.

The candidates jockeyed to distinguish themselves on these fronts at events in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge this past week. Kevin O'Leary, viewed as one of the front-runners, took a pass on the Edmonton forum on Tuesday to hold an alternative "fireside chat" event – and also ditched the Calgary forum all his competitors attended. But next week, Mr. O'Leary will hold a number of events in Calgary, including a "friendraiser" lunch at a large downtown convention hall, with invitations being sent to members of the energy-focused business community.

At the Calgary forum on Wednesday – an unofficial event not formally sanctioned by the party – each candidate got four minutes to speak about whatever they wanted. Many spent their time telling their personal stories and burnishing their energy-industry credentials. Steven Blaney emphasized he was an engineer and had the largest refinery in Quebec in his riding of Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis. Erin O'Toole spoke of his student summer job working for TransCanada Corp., the company now pursuing construction of the Energy East and Keystone XL projects.

But there were also economic plans of some substance. Mr. O'Toole spoke of his scheme to make pipelines a national strategic priority. Calling himself "the Albertan from Quebec," Maxime Bernier got huge applause for his promise to reform the equalization formula, which he said unfairly penalizes Alberta.

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"It is a poverty trap," Mr. Bernier told the crowd. The current formula means Quebec and Atlantic Canada don't have any incentive to develop their own natural resources, "and you are paying for that."

There was some grumbling as Michael Chong explained his plan for a national carbon tax. But he made his case by promising his carbon tax will be used to usher in a massive federal income tax cut. And by pledging to place the levy on consumption rather than at production, Mr. Chong spoke to an issue many Albertans see as a long-standing injustice – that the producers of crude have been demonized while the driving of cars and flying of airplanes continue, mostly unabated.

In Calgary, Mr. Chong's plan didn't elicit boos – as had been the case in Edmonton the night before – but rather some applause.

"This is no longer a small issue that we can ignore. This is one of the biggest public-policy challenges of our generation," he said in an interview.

Kellie Leitch got a big cheer when she told the audience not to listen to the media when it comes her policies. But the reception to her closing remarks – that she is distinguished for her views on immigration, including her belief newcomers should be carefully vetted for their views on Canadian values, and that "illegal aliens" crossing the border should be sent back to the United States – was more reserved.

Federal Conservative leadership candidates will want to spend time in Alberta, the Conservative heartland – but they need not linger. A points system gives an equal weighting to each of Canada's 338 ridings, no matter how many Conservatives call a constituency home, and based on that, Alberta will account for only about 10 per cent of the final vote.

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Where a riding association with thousands of members is not unheard of in some parts of Alberta, in other parts of the country – Atlantic Canada or Quebec, for instance – the constituencies might have just a few dozen members. Still, every riding is allocated 100 points for the vote on May 27.

Because of this system, leadership candidates need to persuade larger groups of people to vote for them in places where support for the party is higher, such as Alberta. This system makes large forums, and getting endorsements from politicians with a firm circle of support, all the more important.

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