A couple of weeks ago, Lakeland This Week spoke to area MLA Brian Jean. The topic was a catch-up on the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche provincial representative's early days back in provincial politics, his new role as the minister of Jobs, Economy and Northern Development — and of course, his new-found allegiance with Premier Danielle Smith.
The curious news-gatherer part of the interview skirted around how Jean could now be in the same cabinet, sharing the same ideas, and swallowing the same rhetoric as the person he had just recently been strongly campaigning against in the UCP leadership campaign. It was the expectation of the interviewer that Jean's strong stance against Smith in the leadership race would slowly cut through that new-car-smell he was telling us he was now breathing.
After-all, Smith is the same person Jean said was not a good fit for Albertans, and was not the right person to lead the party against the Opposition in the coming provincial election. Just months before, in the heat of political battle, Jean had come out swinging against Smith's politics.
He questioned her grasp on reality as she peddled the Sovereignty Act, a sweeping piece of at-the-time draft legislation she wanted to introduce to cut loose of many federal policies and regulations she said were hampering Alberta decision-makers. Jean likened the document to "snake oil" during interviews on the leadership campaign trail, with Smith as its salesperson.
So in the recent post-election interview, as he spoke about economic generators, federal restrictions, the strong backbone of the working-strong of the region, the white elephant was hanging over it all — but he wasn't offering any peanuts to draw attention to it.
It was almost a shame. But at the same time, it was low-hanging fruit, and all too often journalists and politicians get blamed for reaching towards it.
Jean simply said that he and Smith do share some similar leadership qualities and have other common ground. That was it; almost deflating really. After months of rock-em, sock-em build-up, it was kind of a technical-decision finish that felt empty to many who watched the fight. In the weeks after the leadership results, it got even more docile. Jean — and most of the other challengers in the heated leadership race who shared in the attacks against Smith and her policies — took new cabinet position... and are now seemingly toeing the line.
This editorial space a few weeks ago suggested that perhaps it is all part of a large ruse — that UCP veterans were planning to unceremoniously dump the new Premier shortly after she took office — bringing her in, and then shutting her out, scuttling her plans to Make Alberta Great Again, and winning back the votes of Albertans who may now think the UCP is too radical with its Sovereignty Bill and some of Smith's opinions on healthcare and federal mandates. If that's the case, well, tick-tock.
But following the successful third reading of the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act during a through-the-night session on Dec. 8, it seems that the die is cast. Or is it? The final vote saw just 27 UCP MLAs recorded in favour, over 7 NDP opponents. Jean's name was not on the voting list. In fact, Jean didn't vote at any part of the Bill 1 debate on that final night. Of course, not all MLAs have open day-planners to spend 12 hours in their Edmonton Legislature seats — especially the rural representatives — debating Bills and questioning each other — so the 34 voters are said to represent the interests of all 87 Legislative members... and the four million Albertans under their representation.
Or did some MLAs simply not want to put their names into the record as supporting the Bill?
On one hand it seems the chess pieces are in place on Smith's strategic board. She has most of her biggest in-party critics sitting by her side in Cabinet positions, and despite public and political outcry, she has successfully rammed her Sovereignty Act through the Legislature. But is there another chess game being played? And will that game be won by pawns hiding a white elephant to undermine the queen?