Brian Jean's legacy: What we got, and what Jason Kenney could have had

"Jason Kenney is right — the retirement of Brian Jean is a loss for the UCP caucus, and a loss that will be felt for years," writes Ian Brodie, political scientist and chief of staff to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on former Wildrose leader Jean's retirement from political life.

'Having a former party leader at your side, or at least at the table, can really help a leader.'

Brian Jean walks through the crowd after the Wildrose Party is declared the official opposition in Fort McMurray on May 5, 2015. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

This was originally published March 8.

Earlier this week, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean announced his retirement from politics.

His departure, which one columnist described as "inevitable" after Jean lost the leadership of the United Conservative Party last fall, nonetheless sparked a sudden burst of well-deserved encomiums from all corners of Alberta politics.

Premier Rachel Notley expressed gratitude for Jean's public service, and how he had shown it was "possible to disagree without being disagreeable." Jason Kenney, the man who bested Jean for the UCP leadership, was gracious in admitting Jean's retirement was a loss for the party's caucus.

After retiring from federal politics, Jean returned to public life here in Alberta, despite the personal cost, and at a time when the Wildrose Party needed a leader who could step into a troubled situation and run in an election right away. 

Jean and the Wildrose gave a credible performance through the last provincial election. The example of his persistence and optimism in the face of the loss of his house in the Fort McMurray wildfires was universally respected. 

Brian Jean tours the Waterways neighbourhood of Fort McMurray after his home there was destroyed by wildfire. (CBC)

Being a province-wide leader from a base in Fort McMurray is especially hard on a political family.

Fort Mac is a long way from the big cities, and even farther from the small towns of Wildrose-held ridings in the far south of Alberta. Jean and his family made Edmonton a second home, but a second home is never as friendly and comfortable as a first home. Throughout the family loss, the disruption and the long hours, Jean remained friendly to Albertans from all walks of life, committed to his community and grounded in real life. 

A missing partner

Kenney is right — the retirement of Jean is a loss for the UCP caucus, and a loss that will be felt for years. 

Having a former party leader at your side, or at least at the table, can really help a leader — especially one trying to govern.

Stephen Harper's federal cabinet included two former party leaders — federal PC leader Peter MacKay and Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. Everyone involved in that government knows how much Harper benefited from having both MacKay and Day at the cabinet table.

Brian Jean and Jason Kenney met in Edmonton before the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties. (Chris Bolin/Wildrose Party)

They were not just skilled ministers — able to manage  challenging portfolios. More than that, while many ministers get sucked into their portfolios and struggle to see the political horizon, both MacKay and Day kept the broader perspective they had earned as party leaders.

They were valuable not just because they could handle tough assignments, but because they were a second and third set of eyes on the big national challenges that a prime minister has to keep in view. And having been high profile targets in the past, they were tougher in the face of criticism as ministers.So let us not forget: Brian Jean could have assisted Jason Kenney, could have offered him counsel, would have had the credibility that comes with experience.

Experience in opposition is the best preparation for time on the government benches. Service in opposition keeps politicians humble, self-reliant and sensitive to the outside perspective. Leading a party in opposition lets you see the pitfalls of government and the way governing breeds arrogance. All glory is fleeting in the political realm.

If Kenney ends up as premier after the next provincial election, he will have to make up for the hole left by Jean's departure. He will miss having someone with Jean's perspective and experience in party leadership and in opposition.

A missing voice

Another hole Jean leaves in provincial politics is his powerful voice on the shortcomings of our healthcare system. 

Although Jean was always tight with the details, he was never reluctant to say that his son's medical care had sometimes fallen through the cracks at Alberta Health Services while he was suffering from a terrible disease. 

Jean's comments were powerful testimony that for all the wonders of our universal and public medicare, a system that has made us healthier and healthier over the years without imposing undue financial burdens on our families, patients fall through the cracks too often.

A missing legacy

It was just three years ago that Jean returned to politics here in Alberta. In that short time, he rose to prominence, and wrote his own place in our province's political history.

It was a time of turmoil. Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and a big chunk of the party's caucus had just joined forces with Jim Prentice and the PC Party. Jean took the reins and rebuilt the Wildrose Party.

Brian Jean was first elected MP for Fort McMurray-Athabasca in 2004.

He likely expected his main opponents to be those former Wildrose MLAs and the PC Party. But as it turned out, bigger changes were in store. Prentice called an early election, the PCs stumbled during the campaign and the NDP surged to victory.

Cast your mind back to those days, early in 2015. If Jean and Wildrose had a bit more time to prepare for that early campaign. If Jean had caught the wave of discontent instead of Notley. If, if, if.

What if Jean could have pulled off the unlikely victory that went to the NDP instead. How would Alberta look today with a Wildrose government steering us through the downturn, and Jean in the premier's office?

He never got the chance.

But Jean did end up with a chance to show us dignity and resolution in a time of crisis. Grit and resolution in a time of trial. Hard work and risk-taking in a time of opportunity.  We should wish he had had a chance to say more about health.

Instead, Albertans can only wonder what legacy might have come from a longer political career for Brian Jean.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ian Brodie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary and was the chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. His next book, At the Centre of Government, will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in May.