When Kenney met Jean: The Rise of the United Conservative Party

This year marked the 150th anniversary of Canada but July also marked the birth of a new political party — the United Conservative Party.

It was herald as a significant moment in Alberta politics when the majority of Wildrose Party and Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta members voted to merge into one. It was a move meant to launch a collective conservative strike against the governing New Democrats during the next election.

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The merger came about mostly through the efforts of former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney and Wildrose leader Brian Jean or at least they received a lot of public credit for it. At the time of this post, the two are now facing off against each other to lead the new Tory party to victory in 2019 but its unclear who will ultimately win when members cast their ballots in October.

As the race heats up, lets take a moment to pause and look back at the state of conservatism in Alberta, the rise to power by the NDP and Rachel Notley and how Jean and Kenney were able to make a merger happen.

The Wildrose party, which was established in 2007, has had a history of merging with other right-leaning political parties. In 2008, the Wildrose joined forces with the Alberta Alliance Party because the two were aligned enough on issues that it made sense to bring everyone together under one tent.

Despite the two working together, the new Wildrose Alliance was only able to get roughly 6 per cent of the popular vote in 2008. The Progressive Conservatives continued to command a strong support from Albertans with more than 50 per cent of the popular vote.

The NDP could only muster about eight per cent.

Things started to change because in 2012 the Wildrose blossomed into a significant threat to the PC’s, earning 34.29 per cent of the popular vote, making them the Official Opposition. It wasn’t enough to topple the PC’s stronghold but enough to give it a shake.

In 2015, Brian Jean took the helm as the leader of the Wildrose party.

According to Jean’s website bio, he was raised in Fort McMurray where he boasts about being a hunter, trapper, entrepreneur, teacher and lawyer. Jean’s first political outing was in Ottawa as the MP for Athabasca from 2004 to 2006 and then Fort McMurray-Athabasca until 2014. He made the jump back to provincial politics with his leadership bid and after that became the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin.

Jean has a lot to be proud of during his albeit short tenure as leader of the Wildrose. Things weren’t looking too great before the 2015 general election especially after a number of members crossed the floor to the PC’s including former leader Danielle Smith.

However, something happened that certainly shocked the Progressive Conservatives — the NDP took home a majority government and the Wildrose soared to Official Opposition.

It came as a real vindication for Jean and his Wildrose party.

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The shift in Alberta politics could also be felt federally. The support for the Conservative government under the leadership of Stephen Harper was starting to wane despite the party winning a majority in 2011.

Harper faced a new threat in Justin Trudeau, now the leader of the Liberal Party, while trying to overcome voter fatigue with a Tory government that had remained in power nearly a decade.

Harper’s once unbreakable armour was starting to show some cracks. The prime minister had lost some significant players throughout the years including Stockwell Day, John Baird and James Moore.

While many of his colleagues left for one reason or another, Jason Kenney remained with Harper as the Conservatives were beat out by the Liberals. Although Kenney, who served many roles in Ottawa from Minister of Employment and Social Development to Minister of Defence, won his seat, he decided he would rather be in provincial politics.

Kenney, first elected to office as a Reform Party MP in 1997, has a long history with politics and has played key roles in bringing right-leaning parties together before.

He co-chaired the United Alternative Task Force leading to the creation of the Canadian Alliance party, which ultimately merged with the federal Progressive Conservative party to create the Conservative Party of Canada.

Having seen the success of combing conservative parties, Kenney became an advocate for “uniting the right”, which has become his slogan as he races to become the UPC’s first permanent leader (Nathan Cooper is currently keeping the chair warm as interim leader).

“After months of consultation, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way to eliminate the risk of a second NDP term,” Kenney says in his bio on his website. “There is only one way to ensure that we defeat the NDP in 2019, get this province back on the right track, and restore the Alberta Advantage. We must unite Albertans around a common cause–around a united, principled, compassionate, and diverse free-enterprise party.”

Kenney certainly has a point — combined, the Wildrose and PC’s have 31 seats and more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. The NDP received 40.6 per cent of the popular vote and has 54 out of the 87 seats at the legislature.

Despite mounting a collaborative effort against the NPD, not everything is going smoothly for the new UCP. The party took a hit after one of its most high-profiled MLA’s was found renting out his taxpayer-subsided apartment on Airbnb. The party is also facing a deficit, which is expected to result in job cuts.

But things are expected to turn around for the United Conservative Party as the leadership race begins to heat up. Although Kenney has long been thought of as the best bet, he and Jean aren’t the only ones running. The two other candidates are in the race — Jeff Callaway, the former Wildrose president, and strategist Doug Schweitzer.

Those wishing to run have until Sept. 12 to sign up but also have to pony up $95,000 ($20,000 is refundable at the end of the race). Only members are allowed to vote and the deadline for that is Sept. 29. Members will also need to registration online and the deadline for that is Oct. 13.

Five leadership debates are also planned but no details have been announced just yet.


NOTE: I wrote this pretty late at night so if you spot any errors please let me know.

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