Alberta United Conservatives set to hash out policy at founding convention

Convention gets underway Friday in Red Deer

EDMONTON — Alberta’s United Conservatives take their first step this weekend in deciding what they stand for as they explore proposals ranging from a return to a flat income tax to more private health-care delivery in the public system.

Party leader Jason Kenney has said about 2,200 people have registered for the founding policy convention in Red Deer, doubling expectations.

But he said it’s only the first step.

The party will hash out a constitution and governance rules and look at draft policy resolutions. The caucus will hold public consultations on those policies before finalizing them a year from now.

“What we come up with on Sunday evening will not be the platform but will be an important general direction,” said Kenney.

The party received about 1,300 resolutions and has whittled those down to about 800 to eliminate duplication and anything outside Alberta’s legislative authority. About 250 proposals are expected to make the final cut by Friday for members to vote on over the weekend.

The proposals include scrapping Alberta’s progressive income tax introduced by the NDP and returning to a 10 per cent flat tax.

Another calls for getting rid of the province’s carbon levy, something Kenney has already said will be his first priority if he becomes premier in next spring’s election.

Other proposals call for a declaration that parents are the primary decision-makers in their children’s education and have the right to all associated information.

Critics say that’s a back-door way to force schools to tell parents if a child joins a gay-straight alliance. Kenney has said parents need to be told unless doing so puts the child at risk.

There is also a call for more private health care delivered through the public system and to re-examine medical procedures and defund them if they aren’t deemed medically necessary. Anti-abortion groups, and pro-choice advocates, say that would open the door to defunding abortion.

Kenney is a longtime critic of abortion but has said he would not legislate in that area.

Janet Brown, a Calgary-based pollster and political analyst, says Kenney’s party is enjoying a bump in recent polls that suggests it could form the next majority government, but she added that social issues remain a weakness.

“This weekend is really just about giving Albertans assurances that this is a reasonable party that is the government in waiting,” she said.

“They have to approve resolutions and approve policies that just fit with what Albertans expect from them, and to not get sidelined by … wacky excessively socially conservative policies that are going to make Albertans uncomfortable.”

Political scientist Lori Williams at Mount Royal University in Calgary said the party will have to showcase new recruits rather than debate social policies.

“They’ll want to look like a hopeful, future-looking, diverse group of ordinary Albertans,” she said.

“If they open the floor to policies and some of those social conservative things start to come out, they’re probably going to start bleeding a bit of support.”

In 2012, the Wildrose Party, one of the founders of the United Conservatives, saw a lead in election polls evaporate after leader Danielle Smith refused to sanction a candidate for anti-gay remarks.

Kenney has brought in rigorous screening to avoid a repeat. Prospective nominees must fill out lengthy forms detailing employment history, legal entitlements and online activities, including dating sites.

He has promised to run the party with the grassroots in charge, but some have their doubts.

Derek Fildebrandt was banned from running again under the United Conservative banner after he failed to disclose he had been charged for shooting a deer on private land. Fildebrandt, who now sits as an Independent, said he’s concerned by Kenney’s top-down approach.

“I really want the party to live up to the promises that were made when we founded this party, that it would be grassroots, democratic and bottom up, that it would not be simply an elite-driven party.”

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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