Jason Kenney, a former federal immigration and defense minister, was once thought to be the front-runner to replace Stephen Harper as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, but since the Tories lost power last October, there have been rumours that Kenney would eschew the federal leadership in favour of uniting the right in Alberta or even leave politics altogether. In recent weeks, the Ottawa Press Gallery was busy filing stories that the Calgary MP was returning to Alberta to run for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership, and on July 6 Kenney made it official: he was seeking the provincial Tory leadership and a mandate to merge the provincial party with the Wildrose Party.

Kenney has been a prominent pro-life and pro-family MP on Parliament Hill for nearly two decades. Campaign Life Coalition says he has a perfect record – 21 for 21 – when it comes to life and family issues. He was once a co-chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus and has been outspoken in defending the right of MPs to vote their conscience on moral issues.

No sooner had he announced his nomination did the attacks on his socially conservative positions began. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said that Kenney’s views are out of touch with the province. NDP MLA Marie Renaud (St. Albert) immediately tweeted, “Just one question for Mr. Kenney, Pro-choice or not?” She followed up with a second post on the social media site: “I had an abortion and I thank God I was able to. Who wants to change that?” Kenney dismissed Renaud’s comments as part of the NDP’s attempts to “distract people with hot-button social issues.”

Kenney is avoiding questions on abortion, saying he is focusing on economic issues. Asked by the CBC’s Rosie Barton whether he was socially conservative, he said, “People don’t think in these narrow political categories.” Asked if he described himself as socially conservative, Kenney said, “I describe myself as an unhyphenated conservative.” He said that during 19 years in Parliament he neither introduced pro-life legislation nor made a speech on the topic. Yet he stated, “I believe in the value of human life and I apply it to capital punishment and all bioethical questions.”

In 2012, Kenney repeatedly said during the debates over M-312, Stephen Woodworth’s motion that would require Parliament to study prenatal life, that Conservative MPs had the right under the party’s policy book to have a free vote on the topic. Kenney said if elected leader of the PC Party, he would “allow for freedom of conscience for [MLAs] to represent their constituents on ethical issues, and to do so when those matters come up as votes, but as a government we wouldn’t be taking initiatives on those issues.”

Kenney upset some social conservatives when he endorsed a policy proposal to remove pro-traditional marriage language from the policy book, saying it was time to move on from the issue.

During his half-hour launch speech, Kenney criticized the NDP government’s educational agenda as social engineering. Earlier this year, the Rachel Notley government introduced new LGBTQ guidelines for schools which would entrench transgender rights in the education system. During his launch, Kenney criticized the “ideological agenda” of the NDP, pointing out that it was “planning ‘radical changes to the school curriculum’.”

Campaign Life Coalition vice president Jeff Gunnarson told The Interim CLC was “pleased Kenney didn’t run away from his pro-life convictions and rather, reiterated his belief that all human life has value.” He added that recent leaders of the Alberta PC and Wildrose parties have not been publicly pro-life. He also applauded Kenney standing up for the rights of parents and calling them first educators of their children. Yet he said CLC was “disappointed Jason said a Tory government won’t take initiatives on pro-life issues, as that overlooks the government’s responsibility to take a stand on issues that affect the welfare of its citizens.”

Kenney said he would seek a mandate to merge the PC and Wildrose parties. In the last two provincial elections, Wildrose has been viewed as more socially conservative, while the Alberta PCs have moved to the left on moral issues. The Calgary Metro reported that former Progressive Conservative education minister Thomas Lukaszuk said Kenney’s views are out-of-step with the party’s and he hoped a more “moderate” candidate would step forward to challenge Kenney. Lukaszuk would not rule out running for the job himself.

In January, Lukaszuk complained that the NDP’s proposed school reforms did not go far enough and said that religious schools that rejected LGBT guidelines should be forced to adopt them.

The Alberta PC leadership officially begins on Oct. 1. There is a policy convention in early November in Red Deer and the delegated leadership convention will be held in Calgary March 18, 2017. The rules have yet to be set by the party, but Campaign Life Coalition is urging social conservatives in Alberta to obtain a membership in order to support Kenney or other pro-life candidates who might step forward.

Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, a former federal MP with a solid pro-life and pro-family record, said he could negotiate with a PC Party led by a willing partner like Kenney, but has otherwise remained silent on the matter of merger or Kenney’s leadership bid.

Gunnarson said he expects social issues to be raised in the leadership campaign but predicts that the dominant issue will be unity on the right in order to defeat the province’s first NDP government after the PCs were removed from office for the first time since attaining power in 1971.