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Brian Jean's crack about beating Rachel Notley may have ended his hopes to lead Alberta's right

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Brian Jean

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Brian Jean may well have destroyed his chances of ever leading Alberta's conservative movement back to the Promised Land of government with an idiotic off-the-cuff remark Tuesday night about beating Premier Rachel Notley.

The opposition leader and Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA certainly wounded himself gravely when he told a town hall meeting in his riding in response to a participant's question about the need for seniors' housing in the region that "I've been beating this drum for ten, eleven years. I will continue to beat it, I promise. But it's against the law to beat Rachel Notley." (Emphasis added. Given the context, it is impossible for him or his supporters to pretend he was talking about beating her at the polls.)

Jean would have been just fine if he'd stuck to his first two sentences, which was all he needed and presumably wanted to say.

Blurting out the third sentence, though, represented a grave error of judgment -- and, more seriously, an underlying bad attitude about misogyny and violence that has dogged the Wildrose Party and its supporters almost from day one. Indeed, according to former leader Danielle Smith, it was one of the key reasons she gave up on the party in December 2014 and joined the provincial Tories led by then-premier Jim Prentice in a failed "unite-the-right" effort brokered by conservative godfather Preston Manning.

It doesn't really help very much that Jean realized his mistake immediately and tried to walk it back with a half-hearted apology, followed up quickly with a more serious apology, then with a note to Premier Notley in which he appeared to apologize with sincerity.

But it was too late the instant he'd flapped his gums, given his history with this issue, in which many of Alberta's right-wing political figures (not just Jean) seem to tolerate and even encourage this kind of misogynistic and violent commentary among their supporters, jocular and otherwise, and on occasion exhibit such behaviour themselves.

It also doesn't make it better, or provide Jean with any excuses, that the crowd of his supporters apparently laughed uproariously at his crack.

It was clear by yesterday morning that a very large number of Albertans outside his party's ranks, quite a few of them small-c conservatives, did not find is effort at humour even remotely funny. You had to know it was bad when normally apolitical citizens like medal winners from the recent Olympics started speaking up and condemning his remarks.

The irony is rich that, not so long ago, Jean appeared to acknowledge the Alberta right and especially his own party has a problem with misogynistic and violent rhetoric by its members. Back in December 2015, after a stream of lurid threats against NDP politicians in general and Notley in particular appeared on pro-Wildrose social media sites, he declared that he would "have a zero tolerance policy for such comments" on his own Facebook page. Previously, many such comments had been allowed to sit there for long periods of time.

By implication, at least, Jean's carefully parsed December commentary on social media did indicate between the lines he knew perfectly well the source of this public fountain of hate was in his own party's members. "Over the past few days," his statement began, "I've seen far too many hateful and even violent social media posts directed towards our political opponents." (Emphasis added.) "This needs to stop. These kinds of comments cross all bounds of respect and decency and have absolutely no place in our political discourse. This is not how Albertans behave."

The trouble is, it is how a significant subset of Albertans do behave, as is becoming embarrassingly evident to everyone, everywhere.

Then, in May this year, Jean attempted to fire Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt for a social media post in which he appeared to endorse homophobic and misogynistic comments about Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, to whom he had given a rude reception when she visited the Alberta Legislature a few hours before.

Acting swiftly while attending the federal Conservative Party's convention in Vancouver, Jean issued a terse news release stating that Fildebrandt had been suspended from caucus and dumped as a front-bencher for making "an unacceptable comment on social media that does not represent the values of the Wildrose caucus."

Well, Fildebrandt's supporters quickly made it clear their man’s comments did represent the values of their Wildrose Party, at least as far as they were concerned. Jean's action was met with a storm of protest from party members -- ironically, saying many of the same things the same people are now saying in defence of Jean's Fort Mac remark. He quickly backed down and completely reinstated Fildebrandt.

This may or may not have encouraged the worst instincts of the Wildrose Party's membership. To his credit, Fildebrandt has kept his hitherto loose lips zipped ever since. But the fact Jean has made the same sort of slip suggests he has similar values to those he criticized in Fildebrandt. That, in turn, makes it hard to dismiss the possibility the Wildrose leader may have had different reasons for his attack on his ambitious lieutenant.

It is not clear whether this blow to Jean's credibility will help or hinder Calgary Midnapore MP Jason Kenney's quest to unite and lead Alberta's right.

On one hand, Jean may have ruled himself out of contention as a likely leader of a united right, which it could be argued would help Kenney further on down the line if he manages to capture the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.

On the other, it will do little to assuage the fears of those many PCs who understand that Kenney's plan is to merge their more centrist party with far-right Wildrosers whose angry culture keeps provoking concerns about misogynistic and violent attitudes outside the Alberta mainstream. Whatever the PC Party's leadership-election rules may be, such concerns will make these moderate PCs less likely to support a proposed merger under Kenney, Jean or anyone else.

Since Kenney's sole reason for seeking to lead the PCs is to merge them with the Wildrose, surely this can't benefit his project!

One additional thing is clear: Fort Mac politicians would be advised to steer clear of commentary about seniors' housing in that community.

It was the same issue, after all, that in 2009 prompted former PC premier Ed Stelmach to kick Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier out of the government caucus for attacking funding delays for a long-term care facility in the constituency.

Boutilier, who was a Tory MLA and cabinet minister for a dozen years after serving as mayor of Fort Mac in the 1990s, joined the fledgling Wildrose Party after sitting for a year as an Independent in what is nowadays the city's other riding.

He was defeated in 2012 by Tory Mike Allen, whose political and personal troubles did not involve seniors' housing. The riding is now represented by another Wildroser, Tany Yao, an apparent climate-change unbeliever.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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