Alberta PC Leader Jason Kenney, centre, reacts after casting his ballot in the PC Referendum on Unity at his campaign office in Calgary. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Merger weekend? Alberta Wildrose, PCs voting on proposal for new united party

EDMONTON — Alberta’s political landscape faces a potentially seismic shift this weekend as two right-of-centre parties vote on whether to join forces to try to defeat Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

The Progressive Conservatives led by Jason Kenney and Brian Jean’s Opposition Wildrose will wrap up voting on a proposal to merge as the new United Conservative Party.

A merger has been kicked around in various forms for a decade, but caught fire a year ago when Kenney launched his successful bid for the Tory leadership.

“It is the culmination of a year of incredibly hard work, ” Kenney, a cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, said Friday in an interview.

“When we started this unity effort, a lot of people were understandably skeptical that the whole plan seemed perhaps unlikely and complicated.

“But it’s come down to a very clear choice: do we unite free enterprisers into one big party that can ensure the defeat of the NDP? Or do we continue with pointless division that could lead to their re-election?”

More than 50,000 Tories and about 40,000 in the Wildrose have signed up to vote.

Wildrose members will vote online, by phone, or in person at an event in Red Deer on Saturday. PC members have been casting ballots electronically since Thursday.

Results for both are to be announced in the late afternoon or early evening Saturday. The Tories require a simple majority to approve unification, while the Wildrose needs at least 75 per cent.

Kenney and Jean, both former Conservative MPs, have been criss-crossing the province in recent weeks to explain details of the tentative unity agreement and to drum up support for a merger.

Jean says he’s confident Wildrose members will meet the 75 per cent threshold.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said Thursday at a unity rally outside an Edmonton school.

“There are some people that are still not convinced, but I continue to go across (Alberta) and try to sell the message of unity, because I think it’s in the best interest of Albertans.

“Once I have an opportunity to answer those tough questions, usually people come along and say, ‘Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’”

There have been pockets of resistance on both sides amid concerns the new party would move far to the right on social issues and open a spot for other parties to grab centrist voters.

Former PC president Katherine O’Neill left the party after Kenney’s leadership win in March and now runs Alberta Together, a political action committee looking to attract progressive conservative voters, perhaps through the Alberta Party.

If both sides approve the deal, it will spell the end of the Progressive Conservative brand that governed Alberta for almost 44 years. That run ended when Notley’s NDP won a majority in the 2015 election.

A yes vote would launch a leadership race that already has three participants. Jean and Kenney have said they’ll run, and Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer is already campaigning. Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt has said he is also considering it.

As per the unity agreement, joint committees would be struck to get the machinery of a new party in place with constituency associations and candidates. The goal is to be ready for the next election set for the spring of 2019.

Uncertainty remains over what happens if one side fails to ratify.

Kenney has talked about a possible Plan B including some form of co-operation, such as the two sides not running against each other in certain constituencies.

Jean said he’s thought about a fallback plan, but he’ll deal with it when and if the time comes.

“What I’m doing right now is focusing on unity and concentrating all my efforts there,” said Jean.

“And I believe ultimately we’ll get a yes vote on Saturday.”

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