It was a celebratory mood in a packed room at the Telus Convention Centre on Friday night, and not just because it was St. Patrick’s Day. Attendees from across Alberta kicked off what could be the last ever Progressive Conservative leadership convention.
During an opening rally, all three candidates for the position of leader took to the stage to address the crowd.
The loudest welcome was for Jason Kenney, perceived to be the front runner in the race. He arrived on stage as the crowd waved placards and chanted “Kenney.” A number of supporters were clad in blue t-shirts and white cowboy hats.
“I feel the energy in this room and this energy is going to help us get this province back on track, rid ourselves of this socialist government and renew the ‘Alberta Advantage,'” said Kenney, echoing a familiar refrain from his campaign leading up to the convention. “The New Democrats aren’t bad people, they just have bad ideas.”
Dr. Richard Starke entered the convention hall to the strains of The Proclaimers ‘500 Miles,’ running out the song as he shook hands and greeted convention-goers on his way to the stage. Applause was polite, but not nearly as raucous as it was for Kenney.
“I was there for 12 consecutive victories, and I was there as a candidate when our record-breaking time in government came to an end,” started Starke. “I didn’t leave then, I won’t leave now, you’ll have to pry my Progressive Conservative membership card out of my cold, dead hands.”
Starke made pains through his speech to outline why he believes Kenney’s plan to unify members of the PC and Wildrose parties is what he describes as a “risky path,” while at the same time not mentioning his competitor by name.
“You could choose a long, convoluted and risky path of forming a new, untested party while destroying established ones,” said Starke. “You could choose that path, or you could honour the clear choice that was made by Progressive Conservatives last May, who voted overwhelmingly to revitalize our party.”
By the time Byron Nelson took to the stage, celebratory festivities were well underway in the convention hall, and Nelson struggled at times to be heard over the increasingly loud conversation of the cloud. His message echoed Starke’s.
“I’ve tried to find out what the plan is for unity,” said Nelson. “What I have found is there is no specific plan for us to end up with one, small-c conservative party at the next election. There’s no process.”
“My worry is not with unity itself,” continued Nelson. “If we do it incorrectly, we’re inviting the NDP to occupy government for another four years.”
More than 1700 delegates will vote in Saturday’s leadership contest.