No longer bobbleheads

We’ve just seen the week of the revenge of the Stephen Harper backbencher. Or, more precisely, we’ve seen what a backbencher is capable of once unshackled from the rows of the bobbleheads. Brian Jean was part of the backbench wallpaper here for 10 years, Patrick Brown for nine.

We’ve just seen the week of the revenge of the Stephen Harper backbencher.

Or, more precisely, we’ve seen what a backbencher is capable of once unshackled from the rows of the bobbleheads.

Brian Jean was part of the backbench wallpaper here for 10 years, Patrick Brown for nine.

Beyond being caucus mates, Brown and Jean had really only one thing in common during their time here.

Either one of them could have walked into the newsroom of any major media outlet in the national capital without anyone being able to identify them.

Today, Jean is the Opposition leader in Alberta, the man who saved a Wildrose party heading over the cliff, eclipsed former Harper cabinet minister Jim Prentice and is the voice of the right in Rachel Notley’s Alberta.

If there is to be a merger on the right in that province, Jean holds the cards.

On Saturday, Brown easily defeated Christine Elliott to become Opposition leader in Ontario, toppling an establishment candidate linked to the Harper Conservatives through her late husband Jim Flaherty and the fact that Elliott could have seamlessly slipped into Flaherty’s federal seat had she so chosen.

Both Jean and Brown sit in opposition to majority governments and have long, arduous paths to victory, but they are no longer faceless.

It is the lamentable nature of our parliamentary system, particularly in the centralized government of Harper, that the backbench MP serves only as backdrop, a collection of men and women who learn to clap on cue, nod when told to nod, all the while clutching their talking points to their bosom.

They may be doing stellar work at committee or in their ridings, but the loss of regional media bureaus in the capital and the hollowed out resources of major mainstream media means their work largely goes unnoticed.

Backbenchers in 2015 get notice when they pop off about immigrants or go rogue on social issues or stickhandle odious legislation at the behest of the boss.

We encourage individualism, then gleefully jump on any sign of independence as a signal of government infighting and instability in the ruling party.

Brown won the support of Christian evangelicals and the Campaign Life Coalition because he’d once voted to bring in new laws on abortion and revisit the legalization of gay marriage.

Among his handful of caucus supporters were anti-sex education champion Monte McNaughton and Rick Nicholls, a Chatham-Kent MPP who opined it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stop teaching evolution in schools.

But Brown did something else — he emulated the Jason Kenney model of tirelessly reaching out to neglected riding and ethnic voters and it is a recipe for success which should not be ignored.

That Brown can offer greetings in multiple languages is a page ripped from the Kenney playbook. That he has links with ethnic leaders who were once thought to be in the Liberal orbit are not ephemeral ties, as anyone who has watched Kenney work a multicultural room can attest. Those roots run deep and bear political fruit.

Kenney congratulated his “friend” and colleague on his Ontario victory, but the Brown victory also shows how likely it is that the federal defence minister is in the driver’s seat as the man who would replace Harper when he steps aside.

Another senior federal Conservative on Saturday marvelled at Brown’s hard work, pointing out he had sold memberships in Moosonee, Ont., and never stopped toiling, whether he was on our radar or not.

Jean is a hardline fiscal conservative, but he is not a social conservative.

“It’s none of my business what people do behind closed doors in their personal life,” he told the Calgary Sun in launching his leadership bid.

“It’s not any of their business what I do either.”

He is a libertarian, but one who would not abide some of the homophobic or racist comments of the type which torpedoed his libertarian predecessor Danielle Smith.

On his first day on the job as Wildrose leader, he fired a candidate who was overheard on microphone saying “we need lots of brown people up front” for a photo op. He went out of his way to acknowledge he believes in the science of climate change, muting another issue that dogged his predecessor.

Both men could ultimately prove to be shooting stars in the political firmament. But in order to wield real influence they did the only thing they could — they left behind life as a Harper bobblehead.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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