EDMONTON – Wildrose Leader Brian Jean has opened the door to uniting with the Progressive Conservatives to end more than a decade of bruising political infighting between Alberta’s centre-right parties.
But Jean said if it’s going to happen, the Wildrose members have to say yes, and it will be done under the Wildrose umbrella and under Wildrose rules.
“While I am confident that Wildrose would defeat (Premier Rachel Notley’s) NDP on our own in the next election, consolidating and uniting like-minded conservatives under a single banner is the best chance that we’ll be successful,” Jean said Thursday in a video statement released online to the media and to party members.
Jean also said if the party votes to merge, he will step down as leader and run in a leadership race to be held this summer.
“Let me be clear on this point — I plan to be Alberta’s next premier,” said Jean.
“It is my vision and my plan to make Alberta a place of unparalleled greatness, leading the strongest period of job creation in our history.”
Jean said he is acting on the wishes of most party members who have told him over the past year that he should pursue unity, but only in a way that honours the Wildrose commitment to grassroots democracy.
He said he and other caucus members will attend town hall meetings to gauge the interest and attain a clear mandate to hold such a vote “if the PC members select a dance partner that we’ve been looking for.”
The Progressive Conservative party is currently in a leadership race that has two of the four candidates running on a promise to get a deal with the Wildrose.
Candidate Jason Kenney said if he wins the March 18 delegated vote, he will seek a mandate to dissolve the party and merge it with a dissolved Wildrose party to create a new conservative entity, possibly titled the Conservative Party of Alberta.
He wants party members to make major decisions and to have a united party ready to fight the next provincial election in the spring of 2019.
Kenney lauded Jean’s announcement.
“This demonstrates real leadership on Brian’s part and it demonstrates that he’s in touch with the common sense of common Albertans who are telling us to bury the hatchet, park the egos, park the brands and labels and get past a decade of division,” he said.
Asked about Jean’s plan to keep the Wildrose framework and funding intact, Kenney said that will be sorted out.
“I’m not going to get into legal argy-bargy at this point. The fundamental question is whether or not we seek unity.”
Earlier Thursday, PC leadership candidate Richard Starke, a staunch critic of Kenney’s unity plan, reversed course and said he, too, would seek some kind of accommodation with the Wildrose, although he didn’t give details on what that might look like.
The other two PC candidates, Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson and former PC MLA Stephen Khan, are running to rebuild, not merge, the party, which finished third in the last election after governing Alberta for more than four decades.
Kenney’s campaign has polarized debate within the party. Critics say he is moving the PCs to the fringe and away from the political mainstream by embracing the Wildrose brand of social conservatism.
PC party members also voted overwhelmingly last spring to rebuild the party and not pursue any mergers.
Both Kenney, Jean and Starke say time is of the essence to avoid future vote-splitting that will allow the NDP to come up the middle in 2019 for a second consecutive majority government.
They say the NDP’s economic policies, including a carbon tax and higher minimum wages, are impeding an economic recovery from low oil prices.
While Jean spoke of working together, his speech revealed scars that remain from the bruising right-fight.
“Our party must never be a home for cronies who want to use government and politics for their own personal gain,” he said.
“In the last election, Albertans soundly rejected those who put personal ambition ahead of principles.”