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Attack on Kent Hehr highlights deepening fissures in Alberta Liberal ranks

Kent Hehr

An angry and public attack last week on Liberal MLA Kent Hehr by Alberta Liberal Party President Todd Van Vliet suggests the party's caucus is splintering under the leadership of former Progressive Conservative Raj Sherman.

Van Vliet's rambling and bitter attack on Hehr was prompted by the Calgary-Buffalo MLA's contribution of a guest post to the Daveberta blog, in which he mused about the victory of the Conservatives in the recent Calgary Centre by-election, a race in which 60 per cent of the votes cast were shared among three progressive candidates.

Since there was so little difference in the core beliefs of the Liberal, Green and NDP candidates in the federal race, Hehr wondered, wouldn't it have made more sense to run a single progressive candidate against the Conservatives?

The lesson of this at the provincial level should be obvious, Hehr concluded, accurately if not particularly realistically: "The center/center-left in this province will not form government until we are in one big-tent party."

Nothing new here and, seeing as he's a very smart man, Hehr is certainly as aware as the rest of us of just how hard it would be in practice to stitch together the big tent he proposes. Indeed, Alberta Liberals before Sherman took the party's helm have been preaching the gospel of progressive unity (under a Liberal banner, of course) for as long as most of us can recall.

Liberal pleas for New Democrat supporters to vote strategically for the almost-progressive Liberals would appear to be deeply embedded in that party's political DNA.

So it was surprising that a party official reacted at all, let alone the way Van Vliet did -- in a sharply worded press release that accused Hehr of "back room political engineering," possibly with Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative government, and all but invited him to quit the Liberal caucus.

"MLAs have their own opinions and even can choose to cross the floor and join another party if they disagree with their own party's directions," Van Vliet wrote. "While Mr. Hehr may be working in good faith to create a stronger alternative to the PCs, working to eliminate one’s own party would not seem to be the best way to do that."

It's impossible for those of us who are not Alberta Liberal insiders to know for certain if Sherman encouraged and supported Van Vliet's eruption, but it seems likely. At any rate, other than telling a reporter Hehr is free to speak his mind, Sherman has maintained a studied silence on the issue since Van Vliet's outburst. The Liberal leader also seems to be in no rush to reassure Hehr publicly that he remains welcome in the party's five-member Legislative caucus.

Now, we need to pause here for a moment for the benefit of readers who don't follow Alberta politics closely to consider clearly just who Hehr is. In one sentence, he's a widely respected MLA with an inspiring story who would be welcome in any political caucus in the Legislature -- well, except perhaps the one he’s a member of right now. Indeed, he has been courted by more than one of them.

At 43, Hehr has an unusual and uplifting story: a talented young athlete who hoped some day to become a physical education teacher, he was struck by a bullet while a bystander near drive-by shooting in 1991 and became a quadriplegic. Instead of despairing, he completed a BA in Canadian studies and a law degree, practiced law, became an articulate advocate for the disabled and against gun violence, and was elected to the Legislature in 2008

If he were a member of the government party, Hehr would certainly be a cabinet minister -- and don't imagine for a moment that's not been made clear to him by Premier Redford's PCs.

Yet Hehr has so far remained steadfastly a Liberal, even after his party was sent packing as the Official Opposition by the far-right Wildrose Party in the 2012 election.

This is not to say Hehr hasn't looked around for a respectable way out of the increasingly dysfunctional Alberta Liberal caucus. In 2010, before Sherman became the party leader, he briefly entered the Calgary mayoral race but pulled out before the election when it became evident his victory was not in the cards.

At the moment, it is fair to say, he is the only member of the caucus who could be described as a credible and available alternative to Sherman as the leader.

That fact may put into context Van Vliet's grim-sounding reminder to Hehr that "Liberal bylaws state that membership in the party is open to those who 'subscribe to the principles, aims and objectives of the party.' Mr. Hehr, more than anyone, should understand that eliminating this party through a merger would not be within the objectives of the party. At the very least he must know that such talk would create uncertainty." (Emphasis added.)

It is not impossible, given all this, that Hehr is indeed considering his options. Other members of the caucus are truly indistinguishable in their views from the New Democrats.

So maybe Sherman will succeed in his quest to turn the Alberta Liberals not just into the Liberalberta Party, but into the Raj Sherman Party of Alberta -- although perhaps not in quite the way he anticipated.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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