Only four months ago, partisans from all parties were hoping Derek Fildebrandt would just fade away. Many wrote off his ability to reclaim his former glory after diving headfirst into what appeared to be the largest pile of self-manufactured manure in Alberta politics. Fildebrandt, however, seems born for the political character he plays and in Alberta politics, the stage is completely set for the next, or even former, big act.
Back in February, when Fildebrandt found out he would no longer be welcome in the UCP caucus, there were some dark days for him. “They called me after the press release” he said, “up until literally the day before, Kenney’s people told me to just pay the fine and stay quiet”. So he stayed quiet until then and for a time afterward. Then he started talking.
“Politics is full of bullshit” he told reporters at a press conference in March. He also said that he was told, by Kenney, he would not be allowed to vie for the nomination in his home riding as Leela Aheer, MLA for Chestermere-Rockyview and one of only two female MLAs in the UCP, was now the preferred candidate.
On April 25, Fildebrandt held a town hall meeting at the Strathmore Legion to discuss the impending pipeline issues. During that meeting, he said the original plan was for Aheer to run in a North East Calgary riding and he would be the candidate for Chestermere-Strathmore. That changed, he said, once Kenney won the UCP leadership in October. “What Jason said to me,” he recounted, “is it’s not about me challenging other incumbents; it’s about me challenging female incumbents”.
No one on other side of the Conservative fence thought Fildebrandt would go quietly but his reemergence from certain political death has been impressive in its steady calculations. On May 8, he delivered an impassioned statement to the Legislative Assembly.
“When I was told that I would not be allowed to run in my own constituency because of affirmative action gender quotas, I didn’t quit, but when I was told to just keep quiet and keep my head down until all this passed, I did. It wasn’t in my character to do so, and it was a mistake. I allowed the scheming backroom operators to dictate my behaviour as they are now dictating the behaviour of others.
I was the first member of this House to call for the unification of conservatives, but I’m honestly not sure if history will judge that to have been the right thing to do anymore.
Conditional for supporting unification was the grassroots guarantee that local members would select their own candidates and that members would set the policies of the party. If you believe in democracy, then you accept that you lose a vote sometimes on policy or on your hand-picked candidates.
I can’t be whipped. As long as I’ve been an MLA, I have always voted freely and have broken with the party whip on more than one occasion. One of the things I’m grateful for right now is that there is no party whip telling me how to vote or even not how to vote. The only people who get to tell me how to vote are the people of Strathmore-Brooks. Party backroomers may have stripped the members in my constituency of the right to vote for the candidate of their choice, but they have not stripped me of my voice to say: I don’t quit.”
For that speech, he received a good deal of applause from the members in the Assembly but not, predictably, from his former caucus. And it was just the first indication of a return to the formerly determined and rather fiery MLA of memory. While Fildebrandt has definitely not stopped holding the government to account on behalf of his constituents, he has also taken on a new adversary.
Fildebrandt, along with the governing NDP, Alberta Party caucus, the Liberal MLA and PC MLA, has been vocal in his derision of the UCP’s failure to show up and represent Albertans in the Legislature in what has been called a “disgraceful dereliction of“, and an “unprecedented shunning of the opposition’s” duty. He has even gone so far as to ask the members of the UCP to stay and do their job. On May 30, in a member’s statement regarding a scheduled debate on Bill 9, the abortion clinic “bubble zone” law, he said he hoped the UCP caucus would “at least stay for the next debate and participate in that debate and vote in that debate.” Four members did stay, silent, during debate but left when the vote was called.
He may also find himself with a new obstacle to his work as he discovered that same day. Fildebrandt had proposed a motion to open debate on the Kinder Morgan pipeline development and the Alberta government’s role in the investment. As is parliamentary procedure, he had given notice to all other parties. Fildebrandt stated he gave his notice to the parties more than 24 hours in advance of the May 30 sitting. That morning, he discovered a near identical motion was being tabled by the UCP. The Speaker noted the notice from the Official Opposition had been received that morning at 7:39 am but notice from the Independent did not arrive until 8:42 am. Fildebrandt also noted that he had not received notice from the Official Opposition on that motion.
An independent MLA has little power but he does have his voice; as does every other representative in the Assembly, should they choose to use it.
“We might not get to change the final outcome of a vote, but we get to have our say. In fact, it is our duty to have our say, to speak up for our constituents on bills that we support, on bills that we oppose, and on bills that we might not even want to talk about. If they’re on the floor of this Legislature, it is our duty to our constituents to stand up, speak up, and be counted every time”.
That Fildebrandt lost some power when he was reduced to a caucus of one is of little doubt. While he was, for a time, persona non grata he has found his voice once again and returned to what was a strength for him at the start of his career; his fierce independence.
He campaigned tirelessly for unity of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties. He also drew speculation about a possible run for the leadership of those parties when he launched the “United Liberty” brand. He never intended to run for the leadership but “the idea” he says “was to help shape the party” with a liberty-conservative ideology. Now, he is no longer helping to shape the United Conservative Party.
Instead, he is “actively consulting on founding a new, autonomist libertarian-conservative party”. And he is not doing it alone. As an obsessive political observer, I keep up with news and events. As Fildebrandt is my MLA, I take particular note of where his name pops up. One relatively recent place was on a hat worn by the Rebel Media’s “Alberta Bureau Chief” in their Twitter profile picture. The next was at a Rebel-hosted rally where he spoke to the crowd in favour of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. He was introduced by Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant as “an independent; just like us”.
On May 11, he appeared on Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media to discuss a number of failings he attributes to Jason Kenney and the UCP caucus. These include the “whipped” members refusing to represent their constituents on Bill 9, Kenney’s refusal to allow Fildebrandt to run against Leela Aheer for the riding nomination and the caucus voting with the NDP to provide incentives for “gender quotas” in private industry.
Regardless of the medium, Fildebrandt does have some legitimate complaints and now that he is an independent, he will continue to raise these concerns against the UCP. Aside from him running in the next election it’s unlikely the UCP considered him to be more than a temporary nuisance. If he manages to introduce yet another new party into the Alberta political scene, that may very quickly change. Derek Fildebrandt has pulled himself up from certain political death by being exactly who he was as at the top of his game with Wildrose; Derek Fildebrandt: the independent.