Edmonton·Analysis

Can Brian Jean's Wildrose leadership survive the quip about beating Notley?

How has Brian Jean's leadership authority been affected when it comes to dealing in the future with what political pundits call 'bozo eruptions' from Wildrose caucus members? And how does this event relate to former Premier Don Getty?

Key issue is maintaining the authority to handle future ‘bozo eruptions’ in caucus

Former Alberta Premier Don Getty made a similar remark when he called the provincial election in 1989. While the Progressive Conservatives won a majority government, Getty lost his seat. (Ray Giguere/Canadian Press)

As head of Alberta's official Opposition, Brian Jean is doubtless hoping to put behind him the nasty controversy he triggered last week with his off-the-cuff 'joke' about beating Rachel Notley.

But as the dying days of summer turn too quickly into fall, the Wildrose leader might want to ponder a couple of issues he faces along with the change of season.

First, how has his leadership authority been affected when it comes to dealing in the future with what political pundits call "bozo eruptions" from caucus members?

Second, does Jean remember the fate of the last Alberta politician -- Don Getty - who found himself at the centre of a storm of controversy over a similar type of quip?

Jean's comment came last week at a town hall meeting in Fort McMurray, his hometown riding. He was asked a question from a member of the audience about government inertia in pushing ahead with a seniors housing project in the oilsands capital.

His response: "Let's be honest. I've been beating this drum for 10, 11, 12 years now, so I will continue to beat it, I promise." Then he told the crowd: "But it is against the law to beat Rachel Notley."

Jean has apologized, several times in various forms, for the comments, describing them as an "inappropriate attempt" at humour.

Brian Jean issued a direct apology to the premier, which Rachel Notley said she has accepted. (CBC)

Notley didn't immediately respond directly to the incident. But a spokesperson said she accepted the apology. Then on Thursday, at a public event in Edmonton, Notley told reporters she learned about Jean's comment while celebrating her 19th wedding anniversary.

In a classic understatement, Notley said she was "bemused" but didn't think Jean's comment reflected the values of Albertans.

But debate continues over how much long-term political damage has been done to Jean. Many supporters insist the media is making too much of the incident, while some critics argue irreparable harm has been done.

Comment could stick 'a very, very long time'

Conservative activist Brock Harrison, a former Wildrose communications director, told CBC he doesn't think the stain from the comments will disappear soon.

Harrison said he knows Jean personally and argues the comment was out of character for him. But he added: "This is one of those gaffes that unfortunately will stick with the leader for a very, very long time."

That could be a problem, since those beating the drums for conservatives in Alberta to unite the right to regain power don't think they have "a very, very long time" to do it. And dealing with 'bozo eruptions' is no small part of the challenge, especially for the Wildrose.

The Wildrose took a hit late in the 2012 provincial election due to remarks from two candidates that were branded as racist and homophobic by critics.

More recently, Jean himself was quick to rein in his finance critic, Derek Fildebrandt, over a public comment deemed inappropriate.

Jean suspended Fildebrandt temporarily from caucus over how he responded to a Facebook post, appearing to praise a constituent who had referred to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is gay, as "Mr Wynne or whatever the hell she identifies as."

Fildebrandt apologized and hired someone to manage his social media accounts. But Jean told reporters that when he took the leadership of the Wildrose, he was determined there would be "significant consequences for even inadvertent mistakes regarding intolerance."

Not everyone in the party agreed with Jean's disciplinary measure with Fildebrandt. But what is Jean going to do next time one of his MLAs steps over the line, say 'Do like I say, not like I do?"

Getty quip came during election call

The link with the late Don Getty goes back to 1989, the day the premier called a provincial election for March 20, his second as Progressive Conservative Party leader.

No one, including this reporter at the time, expected the remark Getty made to the assembled government staffers and media at the end of the election kickoff announcement.

Getty was miffed about a column written by a Sun columnist, Don Wanagas, who suggested the premier had not yet embraced the relatively new provincial law requiring seat belts be worn in vehicles. In fact, Wanagas suggested, Getty was a "closet seat-belt abuser."

Eyeing Wanagas in the room at the election-call newser, Getty loudly called to him saying: "I maybe whack my kids, beat my wife, but I've never abused a seat belt in my life."

Despite protestations from Getty's staff that reporters were overblowing the significance of the quip, the seat belt quote ended up competing with the election call for news play. As occurred with Jean, supporters said the comment was out of character for Getty, who left Alberta the legacy of an annual Family Day holiday.

But Getty was off stride on the first day of the election campaign, and never really recovered. The Conservatives lost a significant share of the popular vote in the election, plus two seats including Getty's Edmonton Whitemud riding.

It would be over-simplification to say the Getty comment directly brought him down. There were other key issues that developed over the campaign, like a long list of expensive spending promises made in the midst of a growing deficit, something that even troubled many Conservatives throughout the province.

But it was a remarkable feat at the time for a Conservative premier in Alberta to lose his own seat. That forced him to run in a subsequent by-election in Stettler, one of the safest ridings for a Conservative in the province, which he won handily with a little lubrication from the prospect of future government goodies for the riding, which came in abundance

But growing internal party discontent with Getty ended up with his resignation three years later, and he never led his party in a province-wide election again. The question now, more than two decades later, can Jean?

Ashley Geddes is a senior producer at CBC Edmonton and a former longtime Alberta legislature reporter.

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