Not the Brian Jean show: A Q&A with the Wildrose leader

Why Wildrose Leader Brian Jean believes the election proved his party belongs to a movement, not him
Brian Jean, the leader of the Wildrose Party, poses for a photo during Stampede week in Calgary, Alberta at the Petroleum Club on July 7, 2015. Jimmy Jeong
 Jimmy Jeong
Jimmy Jeong

Alberta’s election produced a pair of epic narratives: the fall of the Tory empire and an NDP majority in a province few ever thought would possibly elect one. Tucked in behind these stories is Wildrose’s remarkable comeback. Four months after leader Danielle Smith brought most of her MLAs across the floor to Premier Jim Prentice, a former Conservative backbench MP was elected Wildrose leader. Five weeks later, Brian Jean kept the right-leaning party’s official Opposition status and even grew its caucus. He met with Maclean’s during Stampede week at the Calgary Petroleum Club.

Q: During the debate and throughout the campaign, you tried to hammer home the message, “We’re the one party that doesn’t tax you.” That message didn’t seem to resonate in the polls very well. Why?

A: I think it resonated very well in the polls. But it resonated with Wildrose supporters and fiscal conservatives. Some people say, “You lost, you got second place.” I don’t look at it at all like that. I think we did extremely well, and I think we ran one of the best election campaigns in Alberta history, certainly in recent history. I think what people wanted was a change. They wanted anybody but PCs. And then when the media framed the vote between the NDP, Rachel Notley and Jim Prentice, they picked Rachel Notley. And I don’t mean that they picked the NDP. They picked Rachel Notley.

Q: At a recent party barbecue, you invoked Margaret Thatcher by saying, “The facts of life in Alberta are conservative.” What did you mean when you say that?

A: I think the facts of life everywhere are conservative. What I mean is that when you sit around a kitchen table and decide on your own finances, you make sure that you have more money coming in than going out. That you make sure you cut waste and inefficiencies before you decide to go out and find another job. The NDP believe they can take your money and spend it better than you can. Conservatives, myself, a fiscal conservative, believe that the people whose money it is can spend it a lot better than I can on the priorities they have.

Q: Where do you think Albertans lie?

A: I believe 50 per cent of them are with me, in my fiscal conservative views. I think that 25 per cent of them are very, very fiscal[ly conservative]. I would suggest fewer than 20 per cent of Albertans actually believe in the policies of the NDP. I think 99 per cent of all Albertans want their money spent wisely. So I think all Albertans are with me, but they may have perceptions of who Brian Jean is or no perception at all, which I think was the case in this election, and certainly a perception in the past of what the Wildrose party was. And we tried to dispel that perception, but let’s be clear: we had 38 days. I don’t know if you can find a party that came from the abyss with three members and a destroyed situation two months before to win the largest number seats they ever won–21–and the official Opposition.

Q: Have you talked to Danielle Smith? Would you go on her radio show?

A: I talked to Danielle Smith three or four times last year before she crossed the floor. We’re not friends. Unless she came and talked to me, but I’m certainly not going to go on a talk show with Danielle Smith. I see no reason to do that.

Brian Jean

Q: Watching Wildrose rise from zero seats in the legislature, where it was under her leadership, to 17 seats, it may have appeared the party was her party, that she was the linchpin, and without her, when it was down to just a few MLAs, it wouldn’t last. What was it that kept Wildrose going without her?

A: Principles and good ideas. I think the Wildrose party is beyond Brian Jean or one person. It’s a movement of people who want better government, and they want government that represents their views on prudence and efficiencies. My focus since before leadership was to make people recognize that I was going to develop a political machine, that I’m not going to build the brand of Brian Jean. I think you can see that clearly in the statements by our energy shadow minister, by our finance shadow minister. You can see that it’s not the Brian Jean Show. And Brian Jean wants to make sure it’s not the Brian Jean Show.

Q: The questions have obviously been there, after the PC party’s decimation, about a merger. You’ve said no, and you’re saying no as well to floor-crossing. Is it your hope or expectation that disaffected PCs end up migrating to the Wildrose party, or do you see there being room somewhere between the NDP on the left, and Wildrose on the fiscally conservative right for a party in the centre?

A: No, because I already hold that ground with Wildrose. We are a fiscally conservative party, but we already hold the centre ground and the right, in my opinion, based upon our policy. I think that Albertans believe fiscal prudence is important, as is efficient and effective government, and that is finding places where you can do things better, such as health care and education, which are frankly not doing very well in Alberta. We have the most expensive health care in Canada now and we get bottom-of-the-pack results. We used to be number 1 in education in the world; now we’re number 5 in Canada.

Q: You’ve been talking to many energy sector officials. There was a fellow named Stephen Harper, who when asked about the NDP victory, said the much bigger issue in Alberta is the price of oil–the NDP is not as big a deal as where the economy’s going. Do you think that the NDP, with its policies on climate change and energy royalties, will have a substantial effect on the oil patch, or will the bigger headwinds be from commodity markets?

A: I’ve been saying it for a long time: it’s the cumulative effect. We have a global economic uncertainty issue, obviously Greece and Europe, Asia, China; we have instability in the world markets, and then we have a lower price on oil–even though this is the third-highest revenue year we’ve ever had in Alberta. Plus the GHG emission targets if we are going to be the most aggressive jurisdiction in the world–based on what I’ve heard. Plus what they’re doing with the minimum wage going to $15, and there will be job losses. Along with all the other things, I think it’s going to cause irreparable harm or certainly harm that’s going to cause many, many years to fix. I’m really hoping and imploring the premier to go slowly with her social experiment.

Q: You’re the first major political leader to come from Fort McMurray, and you grew up there. It’s widely seen as a fly-in, fly-out city, though that’s evolving. What is the most misunderstood thing about your hometown?

A: Quality of life there. People slag it, because they fly in, fly out to a camp with 8,000 other men that work 12-hour shifts, don’t see their family or friends, and they fly home. Would you like that? I lived in Ottawa for 10 years, flying in on a Sunday morning and going in and out at 1 p.m. Friday afternoon, getting home at 2 a.m. I hated my life. But I grew up [in Fort McMurray], so I went fishing there, camping there on the weekend. It’s a great place.

Q: A month after you left as MP, you spoke about the need for infrastructure up there. How do Alberta and Canada solve not only the perception but the real challenges that affect quality of life in Fort McMurray?

A: Yeah, it’s bad. Elect me as premier. I’ll take care of it. I’ll invest in quality of life for all Albertans equally, not just Fort McMurrayites. We pay more taxes per capita in Fort McMurray than anybody else in Canada, significantly more, and we work more hours. So I think we deserve the same as everyone else gets– that means not two-hour lineups to get to work, across one bridge or two bridges. We’ve had promises by five premiers over 10 years for an aging-in-place facility in Willow Square in Fort McMurray. We’ll see about the NDP–I’ve spoken to Rachel Notley directly about this. Like many issues in Alberta, the infrastructure issue cannot be fixed in one day.

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Q: Like PC Leader Patrick Brown in Ontario, you spent the first 10 years of your political life in Ottawa in Conservative backbenches. Does it feel differently, being in what has been called a notoriously tightly controlled caucus, and leading and writing your own script?

A: I disagree with the premise of the question. I do not believe it is a tightly controlled caucus. I believe it is a tightly self-disciplined caucus, and I think you should quote me on that because it’s a misperception of who Stephen Harper is. He has soldiers that are disciplined and admire him greatly and will follow him into the battlefield because they believe in what he does. They are not whipped. Take my word for it. For me being able to write my own script is incredible. I had an awesome teacher: Stephen Harper, whom I think is the best Prime Minister we’ve ever had.