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Alberta Opposition Leader officially 'embattled' as Wildrose insurrection spreads

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Brian Jean

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Oh dear. It's never a good sign when mainstream media starts reflexively referring to a political leader as "embattled."

As of yesterday, though, by that semi-official journalistic yardstick, Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean was officially in trouble.

CBC Calgary reported that "a Wildrose constituency association is calling for a review of Brian Jean's party leadership, which comes as the embattled leader deals with turmoil on the personal and political fronts." (Emphasis added, of course.)

This cannot be hopeful news from the perspective of Jean's ability to hang onto the leadership of his increasingly fractious and divided 22-member legislative caucus, which has been suffering serial bozo eruptions since their leader tried to suspend a loose-cannon MLA on May 27 for appearing to endorse a constituent's homophobic social media slur of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Moreover, Jean's ability to control his angry and impatient party base, with its burning hatred for Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government and its imperfect grasp on the workings of constitutional democracy, may be even more tenuous.

Yesterday's CBC report said the party's constituency association in the Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills riding northeast of Edmonton passed a resolution Tuesday night demanding a review of Jean's leadership take place at the party’s annual general meeting on Oct. 28.

By evening, Twitter political information curator Dave Beninger was reporting that his often reliable Wildrose sources say the rebellion is growing, with a dozen or more constituency associations and their presidents endorsing the review of Jean’s leadership at the October AGM.

"In some people's minds, they are not happy with some of the actions that have taken place -- as some were not happy with some of the actions in our previous leader," explained Carl Christensen, the riding association's president, in yesterday's CBC report.

This statement suggests at least that Christensen disapproved of Jean's short-lived suspension of finance critic Derek Fildebrandt on May 27 for publishing his injudicious social media message, and moreover that he didn't think former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith ought to have decamped for the Progressive Conservative caucus with eight of her MLAs back in December 2014.

"There is a lot of Wildrosers that are really upset about this and they're not mad at Derek," the president of Fildebrandt's Strathmore-Brooks constituency association said, meanwhile, after his defiant MLA’s short-lived expulsion from caucus.

The presidents of at least seven party constituency associations signed a letter on May 30 stating their "unequivocal support" for Fildebrandt and demanding that Jean readmit him to the party immediately, which Jean did the next day. By the sound of it, Fildebrandt agreed to none of the five conditions Jean tried to impose on him.

No sooner had the division over what to do about Fildebrandt apparently settled down than a brouhaha about nine Wildrose MLAs' oddball interpretation of history hit the newswires, extending the embarrassment into a second week.

The nine -- David Hanson, Rick Strankman, Grant Hunter, Dave Schneider, Wes Taylor, Ron Orr, Mark Smith, Don MacIntyre and Drew Barnes -- had signed a blog post comparing the NDP government's carbon levy to the starvation of six to 10 million people in Ukraine during the rule of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

NDP Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous, a member of Alberta's large Ukrainian diaspora, objected forcefully, and the Wildrosers eventually made the blog disappear and half-heartedly apologized.

Hanson, as it happens, is the MLA for Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills, where the latest act of rebellion against Jean's leadership has been reported.

So while the two controversies have not been publicly linked by the Wildrose Party, it is reasonable to wonder if the nine bloggers are part of the rebellion against Jean's leadership that has been percolating within party ranks at least since his attempt to rein in Fildebrandt.

That Jean, a former Conservative Member of Parliament from Fort McMurray, deserves some credit for saving the Wildrose Party after Smith's effort to merge its caucus with the then-governing Progressive Conservatives in 2014 appears to mean nothing at all to the radicals now loudly calling for Fildebrandt to take over.

Nor does Jean's dignified performance during the Fort McMurray fire -- in which he lost his own home, the house he grew up in and several other properties owned by his family -- seem to matter a whit to this faction. He may even be in additional hot water with party extremists for co-operating with the NDP Government on the evacuation of Fort Mac on May 3 and the return of residents this week, rather than using the fire for political gain.

As Beninger observed of Jean in another Tweet, "the rebel goon crew runs this party now & they don't want him. Brian is too nice to lead Wildrose."

Maybe, maybe not. But if he is going to hang onto his leadership, and the chance to some day be premier of Alberta, he is going to have to be tougher than he has been up to now.

The Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills riding resolution also asked for the party constitution to be amended to hold a leadership review every year, which is hardly what a disintegrating party needs.

The Progressive Conservatives, lately the third party in the Legislature, have sat very quietly through all this.

Surely at some point, though, a representative of the PCs, who for nearly 44 years ran this province without challenge, will approach the more moderate members of the Wildrose caucus to discreetly discuss the idea of déjà vu all over again. All it would take is seven or eight for the PCs to become the Opposition in the Legislature.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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