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Brian Who? … Albertans know precious little about the Wildrose Opposition's new leader

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Brian Jean

Brian Jean? Brian Who?

The new leader of the Wildrose Party is a man of mystery. Most Albertans -- and that includes almost all of the chattering classes -- know precious little about the new leader of our official Opposition party.

Not only do most of us have only a vague idea what he stands for, it's hard to say whether he’s short or tall. (His pictures make him look short. I think he's actually tall.)

Coverage of Jean's victory in the Wildrose Party leadership race Saturday had some detail about the race and what he said upon winning it, but not much at all about what he believes, where he's located in the political firmament or what he might do next.

It didn't help that a severely depleted mainstream media faced with two major political stories in one weekend day made the wrong bet about which would turn out to be the more important story.

But really, who can blame them? The occasion was supposed to be a coup for former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, who was widely expected to win her Progressive Conservative nomination in the Highwood riding.

Moreover, the mysterious Mr. Jean is really only the leader of the Opposition by a fluke. He hasn't really earned the job, as did Smith, who later crossed the floor to the Prentice PCs in December and then saw her provincial political career end in flames on Saturday night.

Jean, 52, doesn't have a seat in the Legislature at the moment. The party he leads, also for the moment at least, is a sad remnant of what it once was before it was abandoned by the bulk of its MLAs last December at the same time as Smith decamped for the PCs.

Just the same, it's not his fault progressive parties and progressive voters can't get their acts together here, and all this is entirely legal and proper given the way our Parliamentary democracy is designed to work.

During a decade as the Conservative Member of Parliament, eight of them as MP for Fort McMurray Athabasca, which includes the principal community of the Athabasca Bitumen Sands region, he ended up as one of those proverbial Hill nobodies -- seldom in the news and in the last few years so bored he occupied himself composing crossword puzzles.

Jean has been mocked in this space for mailing the results of his crossword compositions out to his constituents, but in so doing he showed considerably more energy and enterprise than do most backbench Conservative MPs in Ottawa.

His online biography is sketchy, at least on the stuff that counts. Career-wise, it says, he's a lawyer with a BSc and an MBA, but he's also worked as "a printer, a logger, a farm hand, and a registered trapper."

His degrees come from institutions you've probably never heard of, the BSc from Warner Pacific College, a Christian institution in Oregon, and the MBA and law degree from Bond University in Australia, an school that encourages students to fast-track their degrees. He got his Alberta legal qualifications though the University of Calgary law school and practiced law in Fort Mac for 11 years before running for office.

When he quit as an MP in January 2014, apparently to everyone's surprise, Jean gave little explanation of his reasons, saying wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren.

An adult son died suddenly from an illness during the Wildrose leadership campaign, and Jean made a short, dignified withdrawal from campaigning for a few days while Derek Fildebrandt, the party's candidate in Strathmore-Books, stood in for him. Then he soldiered on.

But what does Jean stand for? As an MP, he served for a few years as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, then seems to have lost interest in 2011 and, in the words of his Wikipedia biography, "declined reappointment as parliamentary secretary in order to focus more attention on his increasing constituency needs."

According to his Wildrose campaign biography, "Brian is a committed fiscal conservative who believes in low taxes and small government." That’s all very well, of course, but nowadays that could describe anyone from Stephen Harper to Joe Clark to Thomas Mulcair.

Reading between the lines of his campaign website suggests he’s not a social conservative -- leastways, he felt the need to deny that he’d called them "crazy." On the other hand, according to the Toronto Sun, he's been criticized for being too socially conservative and was a fierce opponent of the long-gun registry.

He also felt the need to respond to the reports he'd donated about $10,000 to the Jim Prentice campaign last year. "I thought Jim Prentice was going to actually lead the PC Party to some sort of renewal like Ralph did. Get rid of the cronies. Clean up long standing mistakes. Solve the issues facing Alberta and some of the big issues in Fort McMurray. I discussed it with my business partners and my company made a large donation to Jim Prentice's leadership campaign. … But nothing has changed. it's the same cast of characters that has been in there forever."

A rumour from the east, however, says that in Ottawa he thought Prentice was too red a Red Tory.

It sounds as if Jean supports more privatization of health care, but like all market fundamentalist Canadian politicians, he's extremely cautious about stating this forthrightly. "I believe in dynamic and decentralized health care…"

Likewise, if you know the code words it doesn't sound as if he’d be particularly sympathetic to things like gay-straight alliances in schools and sex education -- "I believe parental choice is the cornerstone of the public education system." But who really knows?

And if a coalition of conservative outsiders like the Wildrose Party can be said to have an establishment, judging from his endorsements he seems to have had the backing of it.

Newspaper coverage of Jean's candidacy, which often reads like a campaign advertisement he wrote himself, credits him with supporting the environment through his role on Parliament's Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Given the Harper Government’s track record in this area, this seems highly unlikely.

Obviously, Albertans need more information about Jean, and the sooner the better.

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

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