This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Brian Jean is back.
And the former leader of the Wildrose Party has a chip on his shoulder the size of a Rocky Mountain Douglas fir.
Jean’s announcement this week that he’ll run in the yet-to-be-called byelection in his home riding of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche wasn’t exactly a shock.
Besides escalating his criticism of Premier Jason Kenney online in recent weeks, Jean telegraphed his political intentions in the form of a rhetorical question on Facebook in September: “There is a byelection coming soon in my old riding in Fort McMurray. Should I run?”
The answer was always going to be yes.
“You spoke and I listened,” said Jean in his Facebook I-have-returned announcement Wednesday evening. “Something must be done or Rachel Notley will win the next election with an overwhelming majority.”
The target here, though, is not Notley but Kenney.
Jean is using the spectre of an NDP government returning to power as a club to batter away at Kenney.
As if Kenney isn’t bruised enough being the most unpopular premier in the country, according to public opinion polls that also indicate Kenney’s United Conservative government would fall to the NDP if an election were held today.
Kenney is under attack from critics inside and outside the government who point to his broken election promises of “jobs, economy, pipelines” and his mishandling of the pandemic.
And now one of his loudest critics outside of government wants inside and is using Kenney’s unpopularity as the key to unlock the door.
Jean and others in the UCP’s anti-Kenney camp say they need to get rid of the leader soon to give the party time before the 2023 general election to choose a new leader and rebrand the UCP as something other than Kenney’s sock puppet.
Or in the words of Jean: “I think my leadership style, my way of building teams, can get the best out of the UCP caucus and turn things around.”
Jean has filed his nomination papers with Elections Alberta and is in the process of collecting names of party members before submitting his nomination papers with the UCP.
The party says it welcomes anybody to run for a nomination, as long as the prospective candidate has been a UCP member for at least six months.
Jean has been a member since the UCP was formed by members of the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservative Party in 2017. He resigned his seat in 2018 after losing to Kenney in the bitterly contested and controversial UCP leadership race.
Jean initially slipped into relative obscurity, but when Kenney’s star began to fall, Jean began to pop up on social media and in op-eds taking shots at his political nemesis. His announcement this week has sent a jolt of excitement through Alberta’s chattering classes.
This is Game of Thrones meets The Revenant.
It is not only a battle for power, but the return of a man left for dead.
So, what’s a beleaguered premier to do?
Under the party’s rules, it would seem he cannot unilaterally bar anyone from seeking the party’s nomination.
Thus, if Jean were to win the nomination, Kenney would be faced with the unprecedented, awkward and embarrassing prospect of his most vocal critic campaigning as a UCP candidate to bring down the UCP leader. Such a scenario boggles the mind and quickens the heart of Kenney’s critics.
Kenney’s best defence against Jean is to have him lose the nomination contest. There is one other person so far in the yet-to-be-declared UCP nomination contest: newcomer Joshua Gogo, an economist who was appointed to the province’s Automobile Insurance Rate Board last year.
On the other hand, Jean is a former MLA and MP for Fort McMurray who is well-known in the region. And, even if he were to end up as an independent candidate, he’d be a sympathetic character running in a byelection against a premier whose popularity is so low you’d need an oilsands hydraulic shovel to find it.
Kenney has until Feb. 15 to call the byelection to replace UCP MLA Laila Goodridge, who quit her seat in August to run successfully for the federal Conservatives in September’s federal election.
Jean would get a real boost in his fight if he were to receive support from disgruntled UCP MLAs such as Leela Aheer, who has not only called for Kenney to resign but supported Jean in the 2017 leadership race. She has not returned my calls and a spokesman for Jean will only say he has been in contact with some UCP MLAs.
The NDP has already started a nomination contest to choose its candidate for the byelection.
You have to wonder if Kenney wouldn’t simply prefer having another NDP MLA across the floor of the legislative assembly floor staring daggers at him, rather than having Brian Jean inside the UCP tent sharpening his knives.
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