Alberta's Wildrose Party, which serves as the Official Opposition, has agreed to negotiate a reunification deal with the province's Progressive Conservatives, with both pledging not to dominate the talks as they kick off a polite power struggle.
Brian Jean, who leads the Wildrose, and Jason Kenney, who secured the leadership of the PCs over the weekend, met on Monday and officially launched unification negotiations.
The PCs are the third party in the legislature, but Mr. Kenney has taken the spotlight in his quest to bring members from both right-leaning organizations together. Mr. Jean, while promising to challenge his conservative counterpart for the top job should a new party emerge, has been more cautious about dissolving the Wildrose.
"Both leaders shared their belief that they cannot and will not negotiate a memorandum of understanding for a potential unity agreement amongst themselves, but will form discussion teams with a mandate to work towards an agreement," a joint statement issued after the meeting said.
Mr. Jean, while promising to consult with Wildrose supporters across the province, hinted he believes unification will lead to victory in the 2019 election.
"I want to be the premier of this great province," he told reporters before meeting with Mr. Kenney. "If I receive that privilege, I'm sure it will be behind a consolidated conservative movement."
Wildrose members of the legislature, while dedicated to defeating the left-leaning government, are cautious about declaring unification the solution.
"I'm a little bit torn," Drew Barnes, who represents Cypress-Medicine Hat, said in an interview on Monday. "I, and thousands of others, have been working hard for the Wildrose for eight or 10 years, and I don't want to leave some things behind in this process." Damaging property rights and weakening local decision-making powers, for example, are on his list of deal-breakers. He would favour Wildrose independence if it appears a proposed new organization would eliminate his party's central principles.
Unseating the NDP, however, is on the top of the priority list.
"I think we owe it to conservative Albertans and Albertans to try to get it together – to see if PC values and Wildrose values are close enough that we can form a common front," Mr. Barnes said. "If unification with Wildrose values in terms of smaller government [and] local decision-making leads to the change in government that Albertans want, I will be listening and I will be there."
Rick Strankman, a Wildrose MLA representing Drumheller-Stettler, said his party's caucus has "different levels of support." He wants party members to have a voice in the process, and, like others considering unification, let them decide the outcome.
"Everybody is generally [accepting] of making a greater, better Alberta," he said. "They're wanting to work with whomever they can to make a better province to live in."
While he wants Albertans to make the call on unification, the rural MLA favours joining hands.
"We have to be cohesive in our goals."
One senior Wildrose insider said while caucus and the board are generally in favour of the process, a small group of representatives and board members is opposed. Those members are wary merger discussions will focus too heavily on Calgary, shutting out the north and rural regions where Wildrose supporters have been less receptive to welcoming the PCs, the source said.
"It is a fear that it will be back to corporate cronyism and ignoring the northern hinterland," the insider said. "Especially if someone from Calgary wins."
Mr. Kenney is not a member of the legislature, and on Sunday said he is not interested in pushing PC MLAs to resign so he can run in a by-election.
Joe Ceci, Alberta's Finance Minister, on Monday criticized the new PC leader.
"Jason Kenney and the Conservatives would disinvest in this province. They would gut public services. They would put us back to some tough times, where we had huge deficits in infrastructure as a result of the cutbacks," he told reporters in Calgary after pitching the government's budget at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce event.