Question of merger with Wildrose dominates final Alberta PC leadership debate
'It just requires a bit of hard work and a bit of willingness to compromise,' Jason Kenney says
The question of whether Alberta's two right-of-centre political parties should merge into one dominated the final debate among the three candidates vying for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party.
Former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney, Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson and Vermilion-Lloydminster MLA Richard Starke were in Medicine Hat for the event on Wednesday night.
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Kenney argued there's no good reason to risk a second NDP win in 2019 because of vote splitting.
And he touted the successful merger of the two federal conservative parties in 2003 as proof that a merger can be done.
"It worked, it just requires a bit of hard work and a bit of willingness to compromise," he said.
Fixing a problem that doesn't exist
Nelson likened merging the parties to fixing a problem that doesn't exist.
The NDP victory in 2015 can't be explained by vote splitting alone. They had something else.
"That's not vote splitting, that's a message that worked. That's a competent party, unfortunately for all of us."
Nelson said there's "zero chance" of creating a new conservative party before the next election. Instead, he said he wants to see the PC party renewed and strengthened.
Starke said he would like to see the two parties work out a deal to cooperate in the next election, arguing that there is not enough time to accomplish a formal merger.
The MLA reminded the audience that the question of unity has been posed in the past, and the idea was rejected.
"Mr. Kenney was not there. It reminds me a little bit of the Quebec referendum. We'll just keep asking the same question over and over until we get the answer we want," Starke said.
The vote to determine the party's leader will be held on March 18 in Calgary.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean has opened the door to uniting with the Tories, but has said his membership would have to agree.
If they did, Jean said he would step down as Wildrose leader and run for the leadership of the new party in a contest to be held this summer.
Kenney said if he wins the March 18 Tory leadership, he would seek a mandate to dissolve the party and merge it with a dissolved Wildrose Party to create a new conservative entity, possibly called the Conservative Party of Alberta.
With files from the CBC's Sarah Lawrynuik and The Canadian Press