The Wildrose Party was not one big happy family this week. Albertans might be confused about what exactly happened between Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean and Finance critic Derek Fildebrandt.
It might be one of the most bizarre political stories of 2016.
Mr. Fildebrandt’s “suspension” and quick return to the Official Opposition Wildrose Caucus is being spun by party strategists as a reaction to a social media faux-pas but it is widely interpreted by political watchers as an internal power play to neutralize a potential challenger to Mr. Jean’s leadership of the party.
An outspoken critic and a fierce partisan, Mr. Fildebrandt has been a opponent of nearly everything the New Democratic Party government has proposed since it formed government in 2015. But the second highest profile MLA in the opposition benches has also attracted his share of controversy.
Here’s the timeline of what has become a fascinating internal struggle for power inside Alberta’s Wildrose Party:
Thursday, May 26, 2016
As Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was a guest at Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, Official Opposition Finance critic Mr. Fildebrandt attacked her record as premier as she sat in the Speaker’s Gallery. In reference to Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, Mr. Fildebrandt shouted “Invite Premier Wall here! Invite Premier Wall“ at Premier Rachel Notley as she tried to answer a question during Question Period. Ms. Wynne was in Edmonton to meet with Ms. Notley to discuss climate change and her potential support for the TransCanada Corporation’s Energy East Pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick.
Friday, May 27, 2016
Wildrose Caucus House leader Nathan Cooper held a press conference defending his party’s decision to criticize Ms. Wynne and suggested the Wildrose MLAs might not have known she was actually in the Assembly gallery at the time. The move was almost universally seen as being in bad taste and led Postmedia columnist Graham Thomson to refer to the Wildrose as “Team Petulant.”
A screen shot of a Facebook message began circulating on social media early Friday evening showing a comment from a supporter on Mr. Fildebrandt’s Facebook page referring to Ms. Wynne as “Mr. Wynne or whatever the hell she identifies as” – an apparent reference to the fact Ms. Wynne is openly gay. The author of the comment added that he was “proud to have you as my MLA,” and Mr. Fildebrandt initially responded, “Proud to have constituents like you!” Mr. Fildebrandt quickly apologized online, responding that he did not fully read the comment and that it was totally inappropriate.
Mr. Jean issued a public statement around 11:30 p.m. announcing the suspension of Mr. Fildebrandt from the Wildrose Caucus because of the comments he made on social media: ‘This evening, Mr. Fildebrandt made an unacceptable comment on social media that does not represent the values of the Wildrose Caucus.’ This was seen a very serious and unexpected move by Mr. Jean, who was in Vancouver attending the Conservative Party of Canada national convention at the time.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
Mr. Jean faced criticism from a massive mob of party supporters online who were opposed to the suspension.
Ms. Wynne accepted Mr. Fildebrandt’s apology for the Facebook comment. “But, you know, I think it was an interesting confluence of things. There’s a woman premier in Alberta, I’m there as a woman, we’re talking about climate change. And I think the attack, the viciousness of the attack, had a particular quality to it. So, I will just say we need to pay attention to that,” Ms. Wynne told the Canadian Press.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Ronda Klemmensen, President of Mr.Fildebrandt’s Strathmore-Brooks Wildrose constituency association spoke out against the suspension. Ms. Klemmensen was backed by the Drumheller-Stettler Wildrose constituency association and at least five other associations that wrote letters in support of Mr. Fildebrandt. Lakeland Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs posts a comment on Facebook in support of Mr. Fildebrandt.
Monday, May 30, 2016
Calgary-Shepard Conservative MP Tom Kmeic tweeted his support for Mr. Fildebrandt.
You cannot make friends out of your enemies by making enemies out of your friends. @Dfildebrandt should be reinstated into #wrp caucus.
— Tom Kmiec (@tomkmiec) May 30, 2016
CBC journalist Kim Trynacity reported that Legislative Assembly Speaker Bob Wanner‘s office had never received official notice informing them that Mr. Fildebrandt was suspended, meaning he had remained a Wildrose MLA even though Mr. Jean’s statement claimed he was suspended.
As of this afternoon, the Speaker's office in the #ableg had not received notice that @Dfildebrandt was suspended from the #WRP .
— Kim Trynacity (@LedgeWatcher) May 30, 2016
Mr. Jean held a press conference announcing that Mr. Fildebrandt could return to the Wildrose Caucus if he took actions to behave himself on social media and met a list of secret conditions.
The five secret conditions were not secret for long. They were first reported on daveberta.ca and soon after by Postmedia. The conditions were: 1) He is suspended from the Wildrose Official Opposition Caucus until the end of the current Legislative Session. 2) He will be on probation until September 1, 2016. 3) He has to commit to personal improvement and personal development. 4) He would be prohibited from doing any media interviews except with local media in his Strathmore-Brooks constituency. 5) He will not be reappointed as Finance critic when he returns to the Wildrose Caucus.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
The Wildrose Caucus released a statement announcing Mr. Fildebrandt had been fully reinstated in the Official Opposition and had retained his post as Finance critic. The five secret conditions given to Mr. Fildebrandt on May 30 appeared to had been dropped and the only condition of his return was that he hire a staffer to manage his social media accounts. The Wildrose statement claimed five secret conditions reported in media were “not accurate” but sources close to Mr. Fildebrandt confirm the five secret conditions did indeed exist.
Speaking in Calgary, Ms. Notley said “with respect to the waffling back and forth in terms of whether Mr. Fildebrandt is in or out, or on side, or whatever it is today, I think we see a party that’s in a bit of disarray.”
AlbertaPolitics.ca blogger David Climenhaga suggested that Mr. Jean may have violated the Wildrose Party constitution by how Mr. Fildebrandt was suspended.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
A close advisor of Mr. Fildebrandt’s, Jordan Katz, confirmed to Postmedia columnist Rick Bell that the secret conditions did exist and he questioned whether a quote endorsing Mr. Jean’s leadership in the Wildrose statement issued on May 31 was actually approved by Mr. Fildebrandt.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
Mr. Fildebrandt returns to the Legislative Assembly for the first time since his “suspension” on Friday, May 27. “There’s always going to be hurt feelings. I’m sitting down with people, talking one on one, face to face. And I think at the end of the day, we’re all going to come out of this stronger as a caucus and ready to go forward,” Mr. Fildebrandt told the CBC.