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Raj Sherman chosen to lead Alberta Liberals: 'This will end badly...'

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Raj Sherman, moments before his victory was announced

Who has the most to fear from the election of Dr. Raj Sherman yesterday as the leader of the Alberta Liberal Party: The Conservatives or … the Liberals?

Naturally, there are two schools of thought about this.

One is that the former Progressive Conservative Parliamentary Secretary for Health, who was fired from his post and kicked out of the Tory caucus last November by Premier Ed Stelmach, is a remarkable politician who has the power to shake up Alberta politics and challenge the government from the centre.

Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid espoused this view yesterday afternoon soon after Sherman's widely expected first-ballot victory: "Today the governing PCs face double trouble. There's a charismatic leader on the right in Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. Now, firebrand Raj Sherman leads the Liberals from the other flank."

The other is that the MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark is divisive and impulsive a one-issue politician who will be the final stake driven through the heart of the moribund Alberta Liberal Party. As veteran NDP campaigner Lou Arab observed in a Tweet moments after the results were announced to a mostly empty gymnasium at the University of Alberta: "Raj Sherman is built for speed, not distance. This will end badly for the Liberals."

Who got it right? Well, it's impossible to say for sure just yet, of course, but it seems likely that while the governing Conservatives may still have a few reasons to fear Smith and her Wildrose Party, they need not lose much sleep over the ascension of Sherman.

As has been said in this space before, Sherman doesn't really care about the party or any policy other than his prescriptions for health care. He's a Red Tory whose leadership campaign was deeply divisive in Liberal circles. That divisiveness was not washed away by the percentage of his victory this afternoon as the body language of his fellow candidates clearly showed.

Moreover, notwithstanding the way Sherman was treated last fall when he fell out with his former Tory caucus mates, there are legitimate questions about the quality of his judgment, as illustrated by his infamous Nov. 17 email to the premier.

Long-time Liberals at yesterday afternoon's sparsely attended gathering, the kind of people have kept the Liberals afloat in Alberta's Capital Region through generations of high Tory tides, did not look or sound particularly enthused by Sherman's elevation. Many had the grim look of loyalists convinced they had been the victims of the invasion of the party snatchers!

And while Sherman's victory was decisive enough in percentage terms, it was not particularly impressive in raw numbers: Despite close to 30,000 people signing up as supporters under the party's bizarre new rules that let anyone vote if they expressed an interest, fewer than 8,600 people actually bothered to cast a ballot.

All candidates complained that their supporters couldn't get personal identification numbers to vote online, but, really, this total still doesn't indicate a party that is setting Albertans' hair on fire! A case can be made that what Sherman has captured is not much of a prize at all.

Dr. David Swann, the party's outgoing leader and the legislature's only other physician, may have got it more than half right when he told the three-quarters empty gym that "we'll never form government -- indeed, we don't deserve to form government -- until we take a long hard look at our own performance."

Alas, that prescription was one that Swann never really took himself, as he showed when he went on to say, "that includes everyone in this room, every volunteer, every MLA, every candidate, every party staff member, every caucus staff member that this party ever had. All of us share responsibility for where we are today…"

Sorry, Dr. Swann, but blaming everyone is pretty rich coming from a leader who in four years never captured anyone's imagination, who announced he was quitting months ago but didn't step down until weeks before an election was likely, who saw no urgency to recruit candidates to run for the party, and who allowed his party executive to concoct a screwball voting procedure that all but handed the reins of the party to a flighty outsider.

The Alberta Liberals are still almost completely unprepared for the election that is sure to come very soon. After today, it's hard to imagine the choice of Sherman resulting in a happy ending for the Liberals.

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

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