Battle for the centre: After Kenney's unite-the-right win, where will progressives go?

While convention-goers waited for the results of the Alberta PC leadership vote Saturday afternoon in Calgary, a spontaneous gathering took place just outside the main auditorium.

Alberta political parties vie for mainstream voters in wake of PC leadership race

An impromptu moment captures a diverse political cast. (From left to right) Former PC cabinet minister Ty Lund, co-founder of Pembina Institute Rob Mcintosh, former PC cabinet minsters Stephen Khan and Donna Kennedy-Glans, Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous and former Wildrose/PC MLA Ian Donovan. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

While convention-goers waited for the results of the Alberta PC leadership vote Saturday afternoon in Calgary, a spontaneous gathering took place just outside the main auditorium.

Photos were taken to capture the moment, unusual due to the time, place and some of the characters.

In the picture are political adversaries, colleagues and advocates. But the scene was a snapshot in some ways of PC party history, from the glory days of former premier Ralph Klein and fat budget surpluses, to the party's dramatic downfall and defeat in 2015.

In the photo are Ty Lund, a former PC cabinet minister during the Klein era, Rob Macintosh, a mid-'80s founder of the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute, and socially progressive former PC cabinet ministers Stephen Khan and Donna Kennedy-Glans.

Joining them are NDP Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous and Ian Donovan, an affable former Wildrose MLA who lost his seat after crossing the floor to join the PC government in 2014.

Kennedy-Glans is seen in the picture motioning off to the side, as though trying to convince others to join in the group.

Youth delegates at the PC leadership convention watch as seasoned political veterans pose for a group photo. The youth declined an invitation to be in the picture. (CBC)

And that's exactly what Kennedy-Glans will be doing as a key member of the Jason Kenney transition team.

Kenney easily won the leadership Saturday with 75 per cent of the vote in a first-ballot victory over contenders PC MLA Richard Starke and Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson.

Both Kennedy-Glans and Khan were at one time leadership candidates themselves before exiting the race, realizing early Kenney already had victory in the bag.

Kennedy-Glans a member of transition team

For the last 18 months, Kennedy-Glans has been running her own recruitment-style campaign, mentoring "post-baby-boomers," as she calls them, who "want to talk about their role in Alberta politics."

"Because those are the people who are going to decide the next election," Kennedy-Glans said.

And that's a message she's going to promote as a member of the Kenney transition team.

Kennedy-Glans said she accepted the invitation in the last 10 days leading up to the vote, as a way to gain a voice at the decision-making table.

Kennedy-Glans will try to recruit centrist candidates and influence policy of the new leader, viewed as right-of-centre on the political spectrum, as a former federal Reform MP and Harper cabinet minister.

Jason Kenney easily won the race to become the new leader of the Alberta PC party Saturday night. (CBC)

"I intend to make sure that we understand, as fiscal conservatives, what people who are younger than 50 really want in this province because they're going to decide the next election," said Kennedy-Glans. "That's why I'm at that table, because I believe those voices can be heard, those centrist voices."

Her enthusiasm is in sharp contrast compared to some others in the PC fold who are wondering what to do next.

Khan, a former MLA for St. Albert, has so far not been invited to join the transition team.

At the convention on Saturday morning Khan seconded Richard Starke's nomination, delivering a fast-paced speech emphasizing the need to "rebuild and renew" the PC party as a "centrist option."

Khan touched a nerve in the crowd when he took direct aim at the Kenney campaign.

"This leadership campaign has turned from a contest of ideas and vision to a lust to regain power at all costs," he said, triggering mild grumbling at the back of the audience.

Starke speech gets chilly reception

But that reaction was mild compared to the reception Starke got when he unleashed an all-out attack against Kenney's plan to unite the PCs with the Wildrose.

"We hold our breath, hoping that none of our candidates say gay people will spend eternity in a lake of fire," said Starke, alluding to a Wildrose candidate's well-publicized controversial comments in the 2012 provincial election.

The crowd responded with full-scale booing when Starke added he was "hoping our campus club doesn't send out an email that says 'feminism is cancer,' " a reference to a recent comment from the University of Calgary's Wildrose on Campus group.

To Khan, it was a "disappointing" and surprising crowd reaction, a clear demonstration of the deep divide within the Alberta PCs going forward.

"I think that's a reflection there are new people here," Khan said. "I've been to a lot of PC conventions, I've been to a lot of leadership conventions, and you don't see that."

Khan added: "And how you bridge that divide is going to be tremendously challenging."

An opening for the NDP?

The only real outlier in the group photo was current NDP cabinet minister Bilous. He attended the convention as an observer, something done commonly by competing parties at these kinds of conventions. Bilous too sees an opening in what happens next in Alberta politics.

Moments before the photo, Bilous shared a handshake and smile with Rob Merrifield, a former federal Conservative MP who in 2014 was appointed by then-premier Jim Prentice as Alberta's representative in Washington.

Bilous and the NDP replaced Merrifield four months after forming government in 2015.

Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous bumping into former MP and Alberta representative in Washington Rob Merrifield. (CBC)

Wasting no time, Bilous told reporters immediately after Kenney won the leadership vote that the NDP also has a role to play in this shifting of political parties, suggesting some centrists and progressives might be more comfortable with his party.

"There's a lot of progressive, mainstream Albertans who are now looking for a home and I can tell you there is room within our party for moderates and we will welcome everyone," Bilous said.