04/09/2014 06:01 EDT | Updated 06/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta Tory MLA launches leadership-style tour, hasn't confirmed wants to lead

EDMONTON - Tory legislature member Ken Hughes announced Wednesday he is planning a one-day tour of Alberta to discuss leadership issues, but wouldn't confirm he's running to be the next party leader.

Hughes, the MLA for Calgary-West, said he will visit five communities in the province on Friday, but won't be charging taxpayers for his expenses.

"I am (paying for it), or friends are," said Hughes.

He has said an announcement on a possible leadership bid is imminent and dismissed suggestions from reporters that he is playing "cat and mouse" with an important issue.

"The long and the short of it is in order to engage with Albertans I believe it's important to engage with Albertans where Albertans live, and that is my approach," he said.

Hughes has been publicly hinting for weeks that he wants to run in the PC party race to replace former premier Alison Redford.

He has launched a leadership website and has been talking to Albertans for the last two weeks on whether they think he should lead.

On Monday, he stepped down as municipal affairs minister. Interim Premier Dave Hancock has said any cabinet minister who wants to run must step aside to avoid conflict of interest.

No one has announced they will run for the party's leadership, which ends with a vote by members in September.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith questioned Hughes' behaviour.

"I think he looks pretty indecisive," said Smith.

"For somebody who wants to be a leader and be the premier of the party I think he has to make up his mind already."

Smith, however, commended Hughes for leaving cabinet, saying there's a concern other cabinet members kicking the tires on leadership may use their cabinet authority to make decisions favourable to them down the road.

That issue brought flared tempers in the house during question period Wednesday when Smith suggested Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar prematurely rushed out proposed changes to reviews of foster child deaths to buttress a possible leadership bid.

"The timing has a very unfortunate appearance," said Smith.

"Will the Human Services minister confirm today that he is not in the race for premier or will he avoid the appearance of campaigning on taxpayer dollars and resign his position from cabinet?"

Bhullar didn't answer but instead mocked the Wildrose as "That Lake of Fire party."

Lake of fire refers to a comment made by a former Wildrose candidate who urged gays to abandon their sexual preferences or face eternity in hell's "lake of fire." It has become a shorthand putdown for Wildrose opponents.

Bhullar's comments brought shouts and accusations across the aisle between the Wildrose and the PCs.

"It's disgusting," Wildrose MLA Kerry Towle shouted at Bhullar.

"You should be ashamed of yourself!" added Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson.

"You can't handle it (the criticism)!" Bhullar fired back.

Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ultimately had to shout at Anderson and Bhullar to bring them and the house back to order.

Zwozdesky later ruled the comment out of order, and Justice Minister Jonathan Denis withdrew it on behalf of Bhullar.

Hancock has said that he expects cabinet ministers to resign when they feel, officially or unofficially, their work as a leadership candidate interferes with their portfolio.

As for Hughes, Hancock said Wednesday that other MLAs travel the province from time to time to pursue areas of special interest.

"If he's doing some preliminary work on his leadership that's his business," said Hancock.

"As long as he does his job as an MLA, I think that's what people can expect of him."