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Fixing the Alberta Medical Association's blunder: What to do about Alison Redford, let alone Raj Sherman?

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AMA President Dr. Patrick White

Having blundered into appearing to endorse Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Gary Mar, it'll be interesting to see if the Alberta Medical Association has the fortitude to accept the clever challenge thrown down by candidate Alison Redford.

Last week, AMA President Dr. Patrick White used the association's private email list to invite its 10,000 members to sit in on "a town hall conversation with Gary Mar from the comfort of your home."

What's the big deal, White must have wondered. Gary's the choice of the PC Party establishment for premier. We're the most powerful trade union in the province, the voice of the medical establishment. Why shouldn't we help him out a bit? And just in case someone decided to make a little hay while the sun shone, White threw in a disclaimer that read, "The AMA's distribution of this notice does not constitute endorsement for either the candidate or a political party."

Well, before you could say "Raj Sherman," a meddlesome newspaper columnist was writing about it, quoting oppositionally minded physicians calling the whole thing a blatant endorsement of Mar's effort to become premier. "It doesn't pass the smell test," grumped one. "It's an endorsement. You can't put a disclaimer on a thing like that."

Oh darn! White must have been gnashing his teeth when this kind of stuff started to publicly hit the fan. So, before the splatter cooled, the AMA's public relations flack was spreading the soothing message that if other leadership candidates would like access to the AMA's email list for a physician-only or health-care event, they should just phone or email.

"If we got a request from a Liberal or any Tory candidate, we would be prepared to send it out," Ron Kustra told Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal. "We just believe it's really important that politicians hear more from doctors. We're really non-partisan. This is just a way to get physicians more involved in the political debate…"

One imagines that the AMA will live to regret this offer, but never mind that for a moment. The first call in, at any rate, didn't come from anyone they need to worry about embarrassing them -- or, worse, using their email list to spread crazy social democratic ideas about private health care.

But it did, in a rather clever way, put the AMA and White in an uncomfortable position.

It came in the form of an email from Alison Redford, a Tory leadership candidate who may not be the front runner, and who may not be the choice of the party establishment, but who nevertheless has some popular ideas (saying yes to a judicial inquiry on health care line jumping, for example) and some ballsy moves, metaphorically speaking. (For example, she didn't hesitate to call out the premier himself when he made the ludicrous claim teachers were responsible for education layoffs.)

What the AMA should do, she told White, is sponsor a debate between her and Mar on their respective health care polices. This is just the sort of strategic move you might expect from a former big city lawyer who served a term as justice minister!

The trouble with that plan, from the AMA's perspective, is that to say no makes them look like they've welshed on a promise, and to say yes to Redford's proposal as she's structured it would cut out the other four candidates, several of whom would scream. Worse, if they say yes, they'll no doubt incur the wrath a certain former health minister, who is said to have been aggressively lining up support for Mar.

Redford graciously said invite them all! But she pointedly noted that it shouldn't really be necessary because only she and Mar have bothered to develop health care polices to date.

Regardless of what the AMA now does, Redford has turned this attempt to endorse Mar -- or whatever it was that White was up to -- into a great opportunity to establish herself in the mind of the public as the No. 1 challenger to the Anointed One, and furthermore as the only candidate with a new ideas on health care.

In other words, while other strong candidates like Ted Morton and Doug Horner have been strangely silent, Redford has skillfully defined herself as the only candidate worth considering as an alternative to the establishment choice. Indeed, Redford may be all that now stands between Mar and an automatic first-ballot victory in September.

This would not be a bad place from which to chart a come-from-behind challenge.

What's more, no matter what the AMA does is almost certain to reflect well on Redford. This has got to be a better return on effort that that of Mar, who didn't return his calls from journalists on Saturday but who is offering voters a chance for a 20-person back yard barbecue at which he does the cooking!

Meanwhile, over at AMA Headquarters, they just have to know that their next call for the use of their email list is going to come from the aforementioned Sherman. You know, the former Conservative MLA, Emergency Room physician and Parliamentary Assistant for Health who was fired by Premier Ed Stelmach and kicked out of caucus last November.

You know, the self-described national expert on health care who says he can fix Alberta's health care problems in 24 months and is now running for the leadership of the Alberta Liberal Party.

Yes, that Dr. Sherman! The physician that White, who is a psychiatrist, mentioned in a very public letter last December, the famous note that suggested Sherman might be suffering from mental instability.

Awkward!

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

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