Jason Kenney elected 1st leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party

Jason Kenney has been elected the first leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, taking 61.1 per cent of the vote on the first ballot at a convention in Calgary.

Announcement popped up on party's website well before result declared at convention

Jason Kenney celebrates his victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press )

Jason Kenney has been elected the first leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party.

Kenney, a former long-time Calgary Conservative MP and cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, won on the first ballot over opponents Brian Jean and Doug Schweitzer, taking 61.1 per cent of the vote.

Jean came second with 31.5 per cent and Schweitzer came third with 7.3 per cent. 

The UCP, which was formed in July after members of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties agreed to merge, is Alberta's Official Opposition, so the new leader could become the province's next premier after the 2019 election.

"Hope is on the horizon and common sense is coming back," Kenney said in a victory speech that slammed the governing NDP led by Premier Rachel Notley.

"If we work hard, stay humble and earn every vote, we will ensure that this deceptive, divisive, debt-quadrupling, tax-hiking, job-killing, accidental socialist government is one (term) and done."

Kenney extended an olive branch to his rivals Jean and Schweitzer by bringing them both on stage and praising them.

Schweitzer, he said, brought a fresh, young voice to the race that represents the future of Alberta.  As for Jean, Kenney said all UCP members owe him a debt of gratitude for his leadership of the Wildrose. 

"Brian Jean has been a true champion of ordinary Albertans, of grassroots democracy and of conservative values and we can never thank him enough," he said, adding that he looked forward to working with both men in the future. 

Jason Kenney, centre, celebrates his victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party with his opponents Brian Jean, right, and Doug Schweitzer in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press )

Kenney did not speak to the media Saturday night. He plans to hold his first news conference as leader Sunday afternoon in Calgary. 

Jean also did not make himself available to reporters following the announcement. His spokesperson, Matt Solberg, said Jean was disappointed but would take questions on Monday, the first day of the fall session at the Alberta Legislature.

During the campaign, Schweitzer urged the party to settle their positions on social issues like gay-straight alliances and LGBTQ rights. Otherwise, the NDP could paint the party as too socially conservative to represent mainstream Alberta, he argued.

Schweitzer said he would bring his ideas forward at the party's policy convention. 

"I look forward to continuing to advocate for those issues in this big-tent party," Schweitzer told reporters on Saturday. 

"I'm excited about the prospects for United Conservative Party going into the next election campaign."

Schweitzer said he plans to run for a seat in 2019 but he wanted to talk to Kenney first. 

Divided caucus 

Kenney, 49, does not have a seat in the Alberta legislature. He was briefly the leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party when he won the leadership in March until the merger vote in July.  He won on a platform of merging with the Wildrose Party. 

Many Alberta conservatives believe the NDP won a majority in the 2015 provincial election because the right-wing vote was split between the Wildrose and PCs. 

Jean, 54, is the MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, and led the former Wildrose Party for two years. He was a Conservative MP for a decade.

Schweitzer, 38, is a lawyer in Calgary. He is the former CEO of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party and managed Jim Prentice's successful campaign to lead the Alberta PCs in 2014. 

Kenney will now have to unite the 27-member UCP caucus under his leadership. Thirteen MLAs supported his leadership bid while 11 backed Jean. Schweitzer had the support of one UCP MLA, Wayne Drysdale, who belonged to the PC caucus prior to the merger.  Interim Leader Nathan Cooper stayed neutral throughout the race. 

The NDP currently holds 54 of the 87 seats in the Alberta legislature.

Deputy premier responds

Deputy Premier Sarah Hoffman told reporters Kenney's successful leadership bid now makes the choice clear for Albertans. 

She said Kenney would make drastic cuts to health and education to balance the budget, while Notley would maintain those services. 

"Now it seems like there's a very contrast, a very clear choice between the values of Jason Kenney and the values of Rachel Notley," Hoffman said. 

As for Kenney's contention that the UCP would win government and wipe out the NDP in the next election, Hoffman suggested he was echoing past Progressive Conservative leaders.

"It certainly smacks of the same kind of entitled attitudes we heard just a few years ago right before the last election," she said, referring to the floor crossing that saw the majority of the Wildrose caucus join the PCs in December 2014.

Six months later, the NDP defeated the PCs, ending their 44-year-long hold on government. 

Voting concerns resolved 

Party members had been voting online and by phone since Thursday morning. The voting closed at 5 p.m. MT. on Saturday. 

On Thursday, Schweitzer and Jean asked the party to suspend voting because they were concerned about the security of personal identification numbers issued to members for the vote.

The party said it found no evidence of voter fraud and the process was allowed to continue as scheduled.

Both Jean and Schweitzer said they now felt confident in how the vote was carried out.

In the day's oddest moment, the announcement of Kenney's win was posted on the UCP website about 10 minutes before it was announced at the convention. 

The page was taken down but screen captures of the page were already circulating on social media by then.