Former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean in the Alberta Legislature Building back in 2017.
Former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean in the Alberta Legislature Building back in 2017. Credit: David J. Climenhaga / AlbertaPolitics.ca

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney insists his former leadership rival Brian Jean’s planned palace coup to snatch away the crown of the United Conservative Party isn’t about to distract him from his duty to restore Alberta’s swagger. 

But despite tweeting his agreement Wednesday with a fatuous National Post article claiming “Alberta’s swagger is back,” Kenney is acting more like he’s letting the former Wildrose Party leader live inside his head. 

In politics, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a vow not to be distracted is shorthand for another D-word: Desperation. 

And the embattled premier was showing signs of desperation when he embarked upon a rambling discourse about Jean during last Tuesday’s beer hall news conference

Asked by a reporter about his rival’s claim he left provincial politics on March 5, 2018, because Kenney didn’t talk to him for four months after winning the leadership race and clearly didn’t want him around, the premier had obviously been giving plenty of thought to how to answer such a question. 

“That’s not accurate,” Kenney began. “I spoke to Brian the day after I was elected leader of the United Conservative Party in November of 2017 and invited him to consider any position that he might be interested in in the shadow cabinet or in the legislature in the official Opposition. I said he was a critical member of the team, wanted him fully involved in a senior role, a front-bench role in the party and the caucus, and he said he wanted to think about it.

“He texted me,” Kenney went on, “I believe the next day, and said that he had decided he wanted to take a bit of time to step back, reflect on his future, and my reply was, ‘I respect that completely, as soon as you want to get reengaged there will be a position for you, and please let me know when you’d like to speak again.’

“I didn’t hear back from Brian until he called me a few months later to indicate that he was leaving his seat.”

In the same interview, Kenney claimed Jean is welcome to seek the UCP nomination in the upcoming but still unscheduled Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election.

But since Jean, a well-known Fort Mac local, might well have what it takes to win there, it’s a safe bet Kenney would prefer to find a way to stop him.

It didn’t take long for former Conservative PM Stephen Harper’s one time campaign manager, Ken Boessenkool, a signatory with Harper to the notorious independantiste Firewall manifesto in 2001, to wonder aloud if Jean could ever come up to the ethical standard required to be a UCP candidate. 

After all, Boessenkool suggested, Jean has violated UCP rules by criticizing Kenney. “One wonders what sort of defence a recently declared nomination contestant and aspiring leadership candidate … would make against the charge that his recent writings and 23 tweet threads violate the @Alberta_UCP Code of Conduct,” he mused Tuesday on Twitter.

Meanwhile, go figure, members of the UCP Caucus seem to be able to call for Kenney’s removal without consequences. 

Boessenkool’s tweet immediately inflamed speculation Kenney would next try to find a way to get the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche UCP constituency association to block Jean’s candidacy for the nomination. 

Jean isn’t likely to put up with more Kamikaze campaign shenanigans without squawking, after all, so that speculation might be justified. 

If he wins the nomination, though, and then wins the by-election, he might be in a position to force a leadership review and win the subsequent party vote. “I’m not going to get into numbers,” Jean told CTV News Wednesday, but “there’s a lot of support for me.”

So Jason Kenney wouldn’t be Jason Kenney if he didn’t have a Plan B to deal with that eventuality. And that would be Joshua Gogo of Fort McMurray, a local businessman with a PhD in economics who was appointed to the Automobile Insurance Rate Board by the UCP in 2020. 

Gogo also serves on the board of a Fort McMurray evangelical Christian youth ministry. While he is often described in news coverage as an engineer, he doesn’t appear to be a member of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, the profession’s regulatory body. 

He is certainly adopting a Kenney-style campaign strategy. He has nothing to say, for example, about how he thinks the government should respond to COVID-19. Nor will he say if he’s been vaccinated — arguing “these types of issues are divisive.” 

Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, who like Gogo hails from Nigeria, has been campaigning on his behalf. That wouldn’t happen without a nod from the premier. 

Meanwhile, Wednesday night, Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid reported Kenney’s allies were organizing another procedural counterattack on Jean at the UCP annual general meeting that starts on Nov. 19 in Calgary. 

Their plan? To amend the party’s constitution to “sharply raise the bar for a quick leadership review.” 

A vestigial trace of the UCP’s Wildrose origins in the party constitution allows just a quarter of its constituency associations to demand a leadership review. Kenney’s foes are nearing the required 22 constituency votes.

The motion to amend the constitution was brought by the Edmonton-Northwest Constituency Association president Dave Prisco, the party’s communications manager, said Braid, a well-connected political columnist who has signalled Kenney’s moves before. 

It is absolutely in character for Premier Kenney to use a party employee to help change the rules to tie the hands of the Bonnie Prince Charlie of the Wild Rose Country conservative movement in the event he’s elected.

If he fails to win the UCP nomination, Jean could still run as an Independent and win the by-election. But he would be in a far weaker position to thwart Kenney’s apparent intention to hang on until it’s too late for party insiders to dislodge him. 

Some former Wildrose MLAs might quit the UCP caucus to join Jean in such circumstances, but probably fewer than he imagines.

All this leaves the UCP’s problem with Rachel Notley’s Alberta NDP unresolved, of course. But from the premier’s perspective that’s a battle for another day. 

Right now, to get there, Kenney must one way or another dispatch his conservative rival. And that’s why Jean has taken up residence in the premier’s head. 

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...