Lethbridge Herald
25 Jul 2017
Dave Mabell

With his “unite the right” campaign successful, Jason Kenney is now expected to run for the leadership of the new United Conservative Party.

But his victory is not inevitable, says political scientist Faron Ellis.

Wildrose leader Brian Jean will be running against Kenney. And Ellis, political science instructor at Lethbridge College, says it won’t be a two-man race.

“Kenney took the bull by the horns,” and he’s got the momentum.

But Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer is campaigning as well, and libertarian Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt is also ready to announce.

“Brian Jean gets credit for delivering his party,” Ellis says, allowing the merger to proceed. And he has the loyalty of many Wildrose supporters.

More candidates will likely join the race, he adds. The name of former Conservative MP Rona Ambrose, who served as the federal party’s interim leader, has been mentioned as one.

“There’s a lot of hope for that from some people,” Ellis says. They want to see a more centreright leader selected — not Kenney, widely seen as a “social conservative” out of touch with most Albertans’ views. While both Kenney and Jean are Catholic, “Jason seems more conservative than the Pope.”

For others, with less name recognition, Ellis suggests it could be difficult to win support.

“It’s a pretty short timeline,” with the leadership vote scheduled for Oct. 28.

First of all, he points out, the merged party must set rules for the leadership campaign. Meanwhile, contenders will be anxious to sell memberships to Albertans who are ready to get involved in the process. So Albertans may see or hear a little less about the party over the last few weeks of summer.

“Labour Day is when the horserace will begin,” Ellis says.

Then Albertans will see if the party is truly “united.”

“There will be some blood on the floor,” he predicts.

But open battles won’t help win support the new party, warns political scientist Geoffrey Hale.

“It’s not in anybody’s best interests to get into the gutter.”

In Alberta, he says, those tactics “don’t sit well” with a majority of voters.

Hale, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge, expects the candidates may be too busy with organizational work and membership sales to get into public squabbles.

“Brian Jean is prepared to work very, very hard on this,” Hale notes. “And he has the party’s institutional organization behind him.”

If Fildebrandt launches an effective campaign however, Jean could lose some of that.

“Fildebrandt could syphon some some of Jean’s support away.”

The outspoken Wildrose MLA is no team player, he says. “He’s an ideological libertarian.” Ambrose could have proven a more attractive candidate, Hale adds.

“But she’s been collecting directorships” at major companies, apparently moving away from party politics.

How far right the new leader wants to take the United Conservatives is yet to be seen. But Hale and Ellis say the party’s success depends on its appeal to Albertans in the political centre, not just its own base.

“Albertans are not social conservatives,” Ellis says.

“The leaders have to understand that they’re elected to serve the needs of Albertans and need to run and govern in the main stream.”

And a United Conservative victory in 2019 is no sure bet, Hale cautions.

“Nobody should see that as inevitable.”

Alberta’s political scene has proven highly unpredictable over the last five years. With much of the heavy lifting already accomplished, Premier Rachel Notley and her New Democrats have plenty of time to announce new family-oriented programs and community projects.

A start on the Kinder Morgan pipeline wouldn’t hurt, either. The company is ready.

“It’s up to (Prime Minister) Trudeau to make it happen,” he says.

“That would allow him to do Notley a favour, and maintain a centre-left option for Trudeau in Western Canada.

Getting it started could also secure his image as a truly national leader, with the best interests of all Canadians at heart, Hale says.

“He can’t afford to alienate a large section of the country.”

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