UCP gathers in Red Deer to hash out policy direction for new conservative party

The three-day policy convention in Red Deer will feature speeches from former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and former federal Conservative interim leader and cabinet minister Rona Ambrose.

About 2,200 have signed up for conference where delegates hope to lay groundwork to topple NDP

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney and about 2,200 party members will be at this weekend's inaugural policy convention in Red Deer. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

United Conservative Party members are gathering in Red Deer this weekend for a critical policy convention aimed at setting the direction for what delegates hope will be Alberta's next government.

About 2,200 have registered for the three-day event in Red Deer featuring speeches from former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and former federal Conservative interim leader and cabinet minister Rona Ambrose.

The main focus of the weekend will be on establishing policies for the party, which formed last summer after members of the Alberta Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties agreed to merge.

For Alberta voters, it's a first real chance to see what the priorities are for the new party. A key question is how the membership will lean on social issues, such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and education, or if they adopt socially conservative policies to appease a vocal and organized portion of their membership.

Proposed policies whittled down

Party members have already voted on nearly 800 proposed policies over the past few months through surveys. The list has been whittled down to 250 proposals, ranked in order of support.

One proposed policy aiming to defund health-care procedures that are not medically necessary made the final cut. An Alberta anti-abortion group urged their members to buy UCP memberships to vote on this proposal because they say it could be used to end provincial funding for abortions.

A party source told CBC this policy is at the very bottom of the list and may not end up being debated.

Other policies could set expectations for reversing some policies introduced by the NDP government, amounting to a challenge for UCP Leader Jason Kenney if they make it to the final list. 

They include "affirming that parents are entitled to direct the education of their children" because they have a right "to intelligence and support concerning their children." This is a rebuttal to a law passed last fall that forbids schools from informing parents their child has joined a gay-straight alliance at the institution.

Policies confirming the traditional definitions of gender and marriage that appeared in an earlier party document did not make it to the final list.

'Duck and dive'

Kenney downplayed concerns the membership could approve socially conservative proposals that are out of step with Albertans.

"When you involve large numbers of people they tend to support resolutions that reflect the mainstream. I think that's what we'll end up with," he said. "I don't want to prejudge all of this because I've been very resolute about keeping my hands off the process."

Kenney said party policies won't necessarily become part of the party's election platform, although they will provide guidance.

Premier Rachel Notley suggested it's time for Kenney to come clean on what his policies are. She said he has avoided taking positions for months, saying he needed to hear what the grassroots had to say. 

"That is a classic duck and dive," she said. "He is essentially refusing to come clean on what his position is, his party's position is, on many critical issues.

"I would suggest that he needs to start being very upfront with Albertans about what they can expect from the UCP led by Jason Kenney."

Some policy resolutions in a draft document distributed in March reflect positions of the UCP's legacy parties.

They include abolishing the carbon tax, reintroducing a flat tax, reducing bureaucracy and bringing down the per-capita costs of delivering government services.