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Alberta's $64,000 Question: Where will Raj Sherman jump? And when?

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Raj Sherman, Independent Alberta MLA

Where will Raj Sherman jump? And when?

Until November 22, Sherman was the Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, the only physician in the foundering Tory caucus and Parliamentary Assistant to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky.

On November 22, Premier Ed Stelmach sacked the rebellious Emergency Room physician for his emotional public condemnation six days earlier of the gong show that passes for management of health care in this province.

One has to feel a certain sympathy for Stelmach under such circumstances. After all, while Sherman's frustrated e-outburst was entirely justified, and while Stelmach's own mismanagement and that of his ministers led directly to the crisis, no premier can allow important members of his own caucus to publicly call him a liar.

What was weird in retrospect was not so much that Stelmach fired Sherman, but that he publicly made up with him first, then flip-flopped on that well-publicized decision a couple of days later.

Regardless of all that, there's just something likeable about Sherman, and so there's been a huge outpouring of public sympathy for his predicament, and very little for the premier's. Exiled to the Opposition benches as an Independent, Sherman's become just about the most popular politician in Alberta.

Why? In part because fair-minded Albertans didn't like it that Conservative party insiders tried to smear him as unstable, even though the email that started the avalanche downhill was indeed weirdly emotional. In part because very large numbers of Albertans recognize that what Sherman has to say about the state of the system is right, and see him as speaking for them. In part because Stelmach's government has reached a point where it can do nothing right in the eyes of a very large segment of the public.

Notwithstanding the fact Sherman is probably the only politician in Alberta right now who could be elected as an Independent, he's also popular because every other political party in the Legislature -- and one without any seats -- would love to have him on side.

For heaven's sake, the guy’s completely unthreatening -- unlikely even to take a short look at the leadership of any party whose caucus he joins! And that's something that can't be said of every Independent in the Legislature.

All this sympathetic attention obviously had its effect on Sherman, who not long after Stelmach sent him into exile sounded very much as if he would not run again. In short order he announced that he would run again, that he would think about joining another party, and that he would go on a personal tour of the province to drum up support for his vision of public health care.

He also promised to consult his constituents before he joined another party.

So the $64,000 Question now is, if Sherman's going to stick around and make a crusade of fixing health care, where will he jump, or will he remain as an Independent?

First, he's unlikely to remain an Independent. Reelectable he may be, but an Independent's life in this or any other Legislature is essentially meaningless. An Independent's hopes of pushing through policy are forlorn. Sherman was smart enough to get through medical school, so he's smart enough to figure this out.

So where will he end up? Well, it won’t be back with the Conservatives, that's for sure. Stelmach's come-to-papa moment is long over, and the atmosphere in the Tory caucus was thoroughly poisoned against Sherman even before he started appearing on the podium at Friends of Medicare rallies.

And it surely won't be with the Wildrose Alliance, since Sherman is a vocal supporter of public health care, and the Wildrose agenda, however soothing its language, is to privatize health care as much as possible as soon as possible.

That leaves the Alberta Liberals, the New Democrats and the seatless Alberta Party.

The Liberals are a possibility, one supposes. Before becoming a Conservative, Sherman was known as a supporter of the federal Liberals. And since the Alberta Liberals are led by David Swann, another physician, they'd have something to talk about. But, gee, the Libs are disintegrating faster than Stelmach's Conservatives!

Swann's eight-member caucus is in a state of apprehended insurrection! Some members won't seek re-election. Others are flirting with the Alberta party. Some are even rumoured to be making eyes at the Tories -- talk about out of the frying pan, into the fire! If there's no palace coup attempt among the Liberals, look for an implosion on the scale of the one that finished off Calgary General Hospital. Surely Sherman is too smart to choose that route.

The New Democrats? Sherman would be quite at home there. But remember, he promised to consult his constituents. Joining the NDP caucus is probably the only thing Sherman could do right now to ensure he was not re-elected.

And so we come to the fledgling Alberta Party. The Alberta Party is made up of a group of disaffected Red Tories and Blue Liberals, folks at just about the same place on the political map of Alberta as Sherman.

And just as Sherman really needs a political home to continue his work, the Alberta Party desperately needs a seat in the Legislature, if only to guarantee itself a spot on all those pre-election public opinion polls.

Best of all, not only is Sherman likely to attract a crowd wherever he goes, anyone who has their eye on the Alberta Party's leadership is not going to have to worry about a new MLA who harbours no leadership aspirations of his own.

Alberta Party stalwarts are certainly doing their best to try to persuade Sherman of the merits of this case. No doubt they're telling him right now there's nowhere else where he can shape health care policy like he can with them.

Sherman could change his mind again, of course, and decide not to run after all. Or he could be frozen by indecision. But the smart money says that if Sherman goes anywhere, it will be to the Alberta Party.

As for when, it needs to be soon, although the government has given him a little breathing space by delaying the next session of the Legislature to lick its own wounds.

Given all that, look for a new party in the Alberta Legislature by the end of next month.

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

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