Edmonton-Meadowlark Independent MLA Raj Sherman

Let’s just spit out the obvious: Raj Sherman doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful party leader.

Dr. Sherman is a nice guy. The former Conservative MLA, kicked out of caucus last November, has done Albertans a great service by highlighting some of the serious problems with our health care system. But, to repeat, he just doesn’t have what is required to succeed at party leadership, let alone get elected leader.

His comments on Saturday are powerful evidence of this.

Late Saturday night, the Edmonton Journal posted a story on its website stating that Sherman had announced at a public forum on health care in Medicine Hat he was looking around for a party to lead, and by the sound of it he didn’t particularly care which one.

From the tone of the story it sounded as if the former Parliamentary Assistant for Health, then the only physician in Premier Ed Stelmach’s government, now imagines that whichever party chooses him as its leader will automatically become the next government of Alberta as a consequence.

“In the next month or so,” the Journal’s reporter stated in the traditional tone of spurious authority cultivated by all successful journalists, “Sherman said he plans to sit down with representatives of the three parties currently seeking new leaders: the Progressive Conservatives, Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party. … ‘Once I announce, I am running to eventually be premier of the province,’ Sherman said. ‘Make no mistake about it.'”

Duly noted. And since professional journalists aren’t allowed to laugh out loud, I’ll be the bearer of bad news: That’s not the way it’s going to work.

For a time there, Sherman, who still works occasional shifts as an Emergency Room physician in addition to his duties as the now-Independent MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, was just about the most popular politician in the province.

His popularity was the result of his taking a public stand against his own Conservative party on health care at a time the entire system seemed to be crumbling. It was also partly the result of sympathy for the appalling way some members of his own party treated him, phoning up senior physicians and wondering aloud about his mental health, appearing to reconcile with him, then kicking him out of caucus, and so on.

But while that sort of thing may give a politician a bump in the public opinion polls, a leader it does not make.

Indeed, Sherman’s remarks Saturday suggest he is a man who has been reading his own press clippings and taking them too seriously. As they used to say when they crowned a pope, “sic transit gloria mundi!” Sherman may still be drawing crowds on his health-care road trip, but here’s a guess more folks come out to satisfy their curiosity than be inspired.

For things have changed since Dr. Sherman was kicked out of caucus on Nov. 22. The unpopular CEO of Alberta Health Services has been fired. The premier himself has announced he’s stepping down. And, whatever the reality behind the curtain, AHS’s new leadership seems to be doing its job with considerably less public uproar.

Regardless of why he still draws a crowd, there are other reasons Sherman is not cut out to be a party leader.

First, while he has a following among the public, he has none within any political party. Remember, it’s connected party insiders, not apolitical members of the public, who ultimately choose leaders. Even in a party that sells memberships for $5 a pop, a candidate still needs volunteers, strategists and fund-raisers.

Second, he is not tough enough. When he was skidded by Premier Stelmach, the hurt showed in his face. Related to this, perhaps, Sherman is mercurial and impulsive. The email to the world that led to his firing was not carefully thought out. Then he apologized. Then he went back to criticizing his leader. Having an emotional side is one thing; flying off the handle because you’re tired from a long trip and frustrated by a loved one’s health is not a sign of strong leadership.

Third, while Sherman is not unique in missing this obvious fact, parties, their platforms and their traditions matter. Notwithstanding their historical ability to win elections, that’s why a lot of Albertans are not Conservatives.

Sherman acts as if it doesn’t matter which party he chooses — or which one makes him the best offer. He acts as if nothing matters except the fact he’ll be premier and he’ll be able to fix everything. Well, maybe he’s onto something when he names the Tories, the Alberta Liberals and the Alberta Party as likely parties to lead, because in reality all three aren’t all that far apart on a lot of issues. But they still have differences and those differences matter.

By contrast, both the New Democrats and the Wildrose Alliance have dramatically different approaches to fixing health care. Voters should decide which one to vote for based on their policies, something Sherman appears to have missed.

Moreover, party members generally want a leader who has a history with their party, shares its values and has supported its leaders. The Tories themselves are divided on public health care, so as a public health supporter Sherman can argue he is in the mainstream there. I am not so sure he makes the grade with any of those three parties on the other issues.

Finally, while Sherman is obviously a bright and well-educated man, he doesn’t have all the answers to Alberta’s health care crisis. Alberta wouldn’t be helped by a leader who thought he did, which is the way Sherman sounds right now.

There’s still plenty wrong with health care delivery in Alberta. Sherman is a strong voice for public health care with an important role to play.

Not as a party leader, though. Not as court jester either, which is where he’s going to end up if he isn’t careful.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...