Derek Fildebrandt's short-lived suspension exposes cracks in Wildrose caucus

As delegates were making dinner plans, word circulated about a Facebook post made by Derek Fildebrandt, a post that eventually led to a brief suspension from caucus and rekindled talk among Wildrose members about the party's leadership.

He was out of caucus, then quickly back in, and party members had plenty to talk about

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and his finance critic, Derek Fildebrandt, stood shoulder to shoulder last October taking questions, but not all questions, about the NDP budget. (CBC)

It was, by all accounts, a typical political convention.

Lots of talk, plenty of speeches, no shortage of socializing in hospitality suites.

If you went to the right tent, you might have been lucky enough to get in before the free booze ran out.

Such was the case last weekend, when Conservative Party faithful from across the country gathered in Vancouver.

For Brian Jean, leader the the Alberta Wildrose party, May had been a particularly trying month in a turbulent year. He was coping with the fires in Fort McMurray, and the personal loss of his family home and many memories.

Some Wildrosers from Alberta were looking forward to reconnecting with their Conservative brethren. In Jean's case, it was an opportunity for the former Conservative MP to visit  friends and former caucus colleagues.

According to a Wildrose source, it was about 8:30 p.m. Friday when the mood of the evening changed.

As delegates were making dinner plans, word circulated about a Facebook post made by Derek Fildebrandt, a post that eventually led to a brief suspension from caucus and rekindled talk among Wildrose members about the party's leadership.

The trouble started on Facebook

The trouble started when Fildebrandt posted a response to a homophobic Facebook comment about Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Earlier in the week, Fildebrandt had led an attack against Wynne and her government while the Ontario premier looked on as a guest in the Alberta legislature.

That tirade prompted criticism from members on all sides of the house, many of whom chided Fildebrandt and the entire Wildrose caucus for their conduct.

Wildrose MLAs had been told to keep a low profile, the source said, but "Derek didn't stay off social media" and posted on Facebook.

It wasn't the first time he had been caught on the wrong side of a social-media discussion.

According to a Wildrose source, after caucus learned of the incident, a hasty conference call was convened with all but three Wildrose MLAs on the line.

'He was unapologetic'

Fildebrandt was asked to make his case.

"He was unapologetic," the source said, adding the more Fildebrandt spoke, the more support he lost.

There was no vote, and there were no objections to what the leader did next, said the source.

Jean suspended Fildebrandt. A hastily called news release cited the reason as "an unacceptable comment on social media that does not reflect the values of the Wildrose" caucus.

For Wildrose delegates, the party at the Conservative convention was over. Fildebrandt was basically told to wait in political purgatory until the gravity of his deed sunk in.

It wasn't the first time Jean has had to reel in Fildebrandt. But this time, the smackdown was public and stinging.

Jean told assembled reporters on Monday morning the suspension came with a set of "conditions" that Fildebrandt would have to meet. The details of those conditions would remain confidential, Jean said.

But it wasn't long before leaks emerged, with news reports that caucus was split on the issue, that Fildebrandt would lose his coveted finance critic portfolio, that he would not longer be allowed to speak to non-local media.

Asked by reporters over the next few hours how the issue was being handled, the Wildrose response was that it was "a work in progress."

'Safe to say we overreacted'

As part of the conditions, Fildebrandt eventually agreed to hire a "social media manager."  According to a Wildrose press release, he also had to "accept caucus' concerns and criteria."

"I think it's safe to say we overreacted" said the Wildrose source, who understands why the whole issue may have looked like a showdown between Fildebrandt, the fiercely fiscal conservative MLA, and Jean, the more reserved and relatively moderate leader.

Chatter about the wisdom of the suspension appeared on Fildebrandt's Facebook page Thursday, with some comments backing the outspoken MLA and some the leader.

"The grassroots movement supports Derek for Wildrose leader and premier of Alberta," wrote Kim Johnson. "We need someone who is not afraid to speak the truth. Unfortunately Brian (Jean) made a very bad mistake. We will see at the next leadership vote what everyone thinks."

The Johnson post had 5 "likes," and Christian Koeksal responded, "I'm with you. Derek would get my vote."

'Brian Jean is not a leader'

Mandy Turner posted her message aimed directly at the party leader. "Brian Jean is not a leader and is unelectable. When is the next leadership review? We the people want to replace BJ with a real leader who is a winner, and can actually win the next election; that is Derek Fildebrandt!"

Another post, from Arlyn Sleeman, read: "Glad you're back, Derek! I hope Brian Jean apologized for treating you as he did. Unfortunately he has lost my respect."

In an email, Wildrose party president Jeff Callaway said it was time to put the controversy in the rearview mirror and move on as a united party.

"We have adapted and grown steadily over time from an excel spreadsheet of just over 1,000 names, to Official Opposition status, and survived some truly testing moments," Callaway said.

When he re-emerged at the Alberta legislature on Thursday, a more contrite Fildebrandt said he will have one-on-one meetings with caucus members to smooth things over. But he denied being involved in any attempt to replace the leader.

"I'm not interested in that," he said. "I supported Brian from the very first day he announced he would run for the Wildrose leadership. You know, that's why we're here, as a strong opposition, working together united to hold the NDP's feet to the fire."

Cypress-Medicine Hat Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes said the dispute is part of the "growing process" for a young party.

"I think when we look back onto this period, it will be clear that we used this to be better at developing our ideas for Albertans," he said.