Five against one: PC leadership debate a battle against Jason Kenney's vision

The first Progressive Conservative leadership debate got underway Saturday with five of the six candidates declaring their support for a revitalized party, in direct contrast to the Unite the Right vision promoted by Jason Kenney.

One candidate criticizes move to create a new right-wing 'Franken-party'

Party president Katherine O'Neill (centre) poses with (left to right) Stephen Khan, Jason Kenney, Byron Nelson, Richard Starke, Sandra Jansen and Donna Kennedy-Glans. (CBC )

The first Progressive Conservative leadership debate got underway Saturday with five of the six candidates declaring their support for a revitalized party, in direct contrast to the Unite the Right vision promoted by Jason Kenney. 

Kenney wants to unite all conservative voters under one right wing party in time to defeat the NDP in the 2019 election. But his opponents started off the debate by rejecting that vision, and declaring their intention to lead a fiscally conservative and socially progressive PC party. 

"The one thing we cannot do in the next two years is to spend that time convincing loyal party members to compromise their values, implode their parties and try to bring some new Franken-party to life all in time for the next election," candidate and PC MLA Richard Starke said. "Where do they think they'll find that kind of time?"

Kenney and Starke are facing off against four other candidates in the leadership race: former PC associate minister Donna Kennedy-Glans, PC MLA Sandra Jansen, Calgary lawyer Byron Nelson and former PC cabinet minister Stephen Khan.

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jason Kenney said the party should be pleased he is signing up young supporters. (CBC)

The candidates were asked questions about the carbon tax, solutions for improving the economy, and how to solve problems in rural Alberta.

But the drive for candidates to differentiate themselves from Kenney's desire to create a new conservative party started with the opening statements and continued to the closing remarks. 

Byron Nelson, the least-known of the six leadership candidates, got a big cheer from the crowd with a dig at Kenney, a former Calgary Conservative MP and cabinet minister, while decrying the party's recent tendency to become too driven by the agendas of its leaders instead of following the wishes of grassroots members. 

"That's just as bad as someone coming forward and saying 'Hi, I'm from Ottawa and I'm here to help.' That's something we need to be scared of," Nelson said. 

Saskatchewan Party, B.C. Liberals 

The other candidates expressed their support for continuing with a socially progressive and fiscally conservative PC party. 

"We can win in 2019 without compromising our values. We can win in 2019 by earning the trust of Albertans," Khan said in his closing remarks. 

"The time for the restoration of the Progressive Conservative home is now... I'm asking you to continue to use your voice to keep us accountable to all perspectives in this party, because it's our party, and its time," Kennedy-Glans said. 

At the last annual general meeting in May, the majority of PC members voted in favour of revitalizing the existing party. Jansen made an appeal to the members who stayed with the PCs after the crushing defeat in the 2015 election. 

"We need to respect the will of the members who have stuck with the Progressive Conservative party through thick and thin," she said, her voice rising with emotion.

"You know who you are. You were at our AGM in May. You stood up at the microphones and and you talked about how proud you were to be Progressive Conservatives and I am too. We are in this together."

But Kenney did not waver from his message that uniting conservatives is the only way to prevent the NDP from winning a second term which he said would be "catastrophic" for Alberta. 

"We should follow the successful model of the Saskatchewan Party, the successful model of the B.C. Liberal Party, and yes, the successful model of the Conservative Party of Canada," he said.

"That's why I believe we should unite Albertans, not unite the right, not a narrow ideological agenda but a broad, tolerant, diverse coalition founded on our belief in free enterprise and and a generous and caring community."

While many Kenney supporters loudly and enthusiastically applauded his answers, a number of the 1,100 people in the room sat silently at their tables. 

Teens bused in for vote

The forum capped off the second day of the party's fall policy convention. Tensions arose earlier Saturday after Kenney bused in loads of young supporters to the party's policy convention in Red Deer, which prompted accusations from at least one of his opponents.

The young men and women, many in their teens, were led to a room where they could take pictures with former prime minister Stephen Harper.

The youth were then directed to the room where the annual general meeting for the PC Youth Association was taking place. The PCYA appoints 20 of the delegates who will vote for the next leader at the convention in March 2017.

While not naming Kenney, candidate Kennedy-Glans said she was seeing people at the convention who haven't been PC members for very long who are socially conservative.

"There's obviously something afoot here. We need all of us to mobilize the centre. That's very, very important," she told reporters.

In policy discussions, Kenney supporters voted down some proposals, including one in favour of a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Kennedy-Glans said these newer supporters are trying to dominate policy discussions that have been studied at the grassroots level of the party.

PC leadership candidate Donna Kennedy-Glans decried what she felt were the efforts of social conservatives to take over the party. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

"I think they are trying to usurp some of that. And that bothers me," she said.

Kenney defended the fact he bused in some of his supporters as "democracy."

"I think it would be sad day that we see young, new people joining the party because they're keen on participating as a problem," he said. "I think it's the solution to a party that's had some serious challenges in the recent past."

Kenney said the youth were recruited when he travelled the province over the summer. He rejected the suggestion having his supporters take over the convention would turn off grassroots members of the party.

"I'm confident that the vast majority of Progressive Conservatives will be delighted, for example, to see hundreds of new young people joining the party to participate," he said.


Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.