Alberta’s Wildrose, Conservatives to merge, will hold leadership convention

Alberta’s Wildrose Party and the province’s Progressive Conservative Party have struck a preliminary merger agreement designed to unify the two right-leaning parties under a new banner dubbed the United Conservative Party.

The new party will elect a new leader in October, according to the nine-page agreement released Thursday. The founding leader needs to capture a majority of votes. Members of both parties must ratify the preliminary deal, according to the document.

The two parties have been negotiating a union since Jason Kenney, a former federal cabinet minister, secured the leadership of the PCs in March. Mr. Kenney’s campaign centred on joining hands with Wildrose, and he wants to lead a united party. Brian Jean, the leader of the Wildrose, on Thursday confirmed he will enter the race. The pair hosted a joint press conference Thursday where they signed the agreement in principle.

Both men have said it is important for a single conservative party to challenge Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government in the next election, expected in 2019. Mr. Jean and Mr. Kenney both said, if elected premier, their first priority would be to kill Ms. Notley’s carbon tax – the NDP’s signature piece of legislation.

Ms. Notley, speaking at an event in Carstairs, Alta., Thursday morning, said word of the merger doesn’t change anything. She attacked the two opposition parties along familiar lines – for their calls to cut public sector jobs and services in order to lower taxes, and the provincial deficit, and for not being “particularly sympathetic or supportive” of LGBTQ rights.

“We’re going to focus on things we talked to Albertans about in the last election,” Ms. Notley said. “We went into the election understanding that the economy was about to go into a very significant and almost unprecedented recession, and we made a choice – we made a choice to invest in Albertans and have their back.

“I’m happy to have that debate with one right-wing party, or 10 right-wing parties. It doesn’t really matter.”

With oil prices low and Alberta’s economy continuing to suffer under one of the worst downturns in decades, the PCs and Wildrose hope to harness the political discontent of Albertans who have seen friends and family lose their jobs or are out of work themselves.

The PCs effectively voted to unite with the Wildrose when members selected Mr. Kenney as their leader. The PCs will host a formal referendum on the agreement in July, Mr. Kenney said at Thursday’s press conference.

Wildrose members, however, have not yet had a chance to vote on whether they want to join their right-wing cousins. Mr. Kenney does not have seat in Alberta’s legislature; Mr. Jean leads the Official Opposition.

Shortly after Mr. Kenney won the PC leadership, he and Mr. Jean announced the creation of a unity discussion group, along with a four- to six-week timeline for it to report back to the memberships of both parties.

That timeline has passed, adding fuel to reports of the parties squabbling over the nuts and bolts of the merger. While Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean have previously declared their intention to run for the leadership of an enlarged conservative party, others could also enter the race.

Wildrose started as a splinter party about 10 years ago and has since been Alberta’s most right-wing party. The PCs are centre-right, although some of its more progressive members are uncomfortable with Mr. Kenney and the idea of joining hands with Wildrose.

Defections started even before Mr. Kenney won the leadership battle, as some Tories worried he would move the party further to the right. Sandra Jansen, who was elected as a PC member of the legislature in the last election, crossed the floor earlier this year. Ms. Jansen was one of the most progressive voices in the PC party prior to joining the ruling NDP.

Wildrose MLAs also squabbled about reuniting, with its most right-wing members worried that mixing with PC members would mean the enlarged party would shift toward the centre.

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