CALGARY — Former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney has won the leadership of Alberta’s United Conservative Party.
The longtime Calgary MP, who held high-ranking positions in the government of Stephen Harper, beat former Wildrose leader Brian Jean and lawyer Doug Schweitzer on the first ballot.
He took 61.1 per cent of the vote, over Jean at 31.5 per cent and Schweitzer at 7.3 per cent.
“It’s another miracle on the Prairies,” Kenney told a cheering crowd after the result was announced.
“Tonight we are one stop closer to renewing the Alberta advantage and getting our province back on track. Tonight we are one step closer to re-igniting our economy so that Alberta is once again that land of opportunity.
“We are one step closer to a government focused on prosperity so that we have the means to be a compassionate and generous society.”
Kenney was the central figure in a push to see the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party join forces on the right to fight the governing NDP.
He won the leadership of the PCs earlier this year after criss-crossing the province, beating the unity drum.
Members of both parties voted 95 per cent in favour of a merger.
Kenney now leads an Opposition caucus of 27 members.
He does not hold a seat in the legislature. He must now wait for a spot to open up in a byelection or in the next general election.
Kenney spent the last two decades in politics. In Ottawa he worked under Harper as the minister for immigration, employment and defence.
The 49-year-old left federal politics last year announcing in July 2016 that Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose party must unite to end vote-splitting and form an effective conservative coalition to defeat Notley’s NDP.
The Wildrose took root more than a decade ago from conservatives disaffected with what they viewed as top-down leadership by the governing PCs along with a failure to protect private property rights and keep spending in check.
The parties have been fighting for the soul of grassroots conservatives ever since, with both sides losing floor crossers to the other.
Jean eventually signed on to talks to join forces and the two sides merged in July.
Next up is a founding convention to establish governing policies and principles. Constituency associations have already been working on amalgamation and the plan is to have a full slate of candidates ready for the next election, with is set by legislation to occur in the spring of 2019.
The leadership campaign was marked by some friction.
Jean and Schweitzer outlined detailed plans to reduce Alberta’s debtload while keeping the rebounding economy from stalling. Kenney avoided specifics on economics. He said he supports a free-enterprise compass heading, but would let rank-and-file members set policy at the founding convention.
On social issues, Kenney was criticized for suggesting he would allow parents to be told if their child joined a gay-straight alliance at school. Critics said that could out a child before he or she is ready and put them at risk of harm.
Schweitzer pushed Kenney and the party to embrace a more progressive stance on social issues. He has said it’s critical to capture younger voters and remove an effective wedge issue for the NDP.
Kenney has criticized Jean for poor management of caucus funding, which forced staffers to be laid off. Jean dismissed that complaint and said Kenney supporters were spreading misinformation on his policy positions.
Shortly after online voting started on Thursday, the Jean and Schweitzer camps voiced concerns over the electronic voting security.
The leadership election committee reviewed the process on Friday and said no security breaches were found.