'Raj Against the Machine'

Back in the day, when Raj Pannu was one of only two New Democrats who could win a seat in the Alberta Legislature, the province’s hardy social democrats sold a T-shirt that read “Raj Against the Machine.”

Now it’s Raj Against the Machine all over again, only this time, with Pannu happily in retirement, the Raj in question is Raj Sherman, who until yesterday was the Conservative MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark, the only physician in the crumbling Tory caucus and the government’s Parliamentary Assistant to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky.

Sherman finds himself unexpectedly in opposition — soon to be assigned a seat as an “Independent,” probably not to far from where the other Raj used to sit.

You see, Sherman did the one thing that’s sure to earn an MLA the bum’s rush from the government of Premier Ed Stelmach: he made the mistake of speaking up forcefully on behalf of his constituents and other Albertans, condemning the mismanagement of health care by Stelmach’s ongoing gong show.

Now, before we break out the T-shirts and the Legislative Medal of Honour, however, some qualifiers about Sherman are needed. While he is an extremely nice person who most people instinctively like — seemingly both sincere and a little naïve — he is not a politician of Pannu’s skill or commitment. He’s presumably a terrific physician, but he doesn’t strike one as a guy who can plot out a chess game 20 moves in advance.

So, while this soap opera has more twists than bag of pretzels, it seems likely that Sherman is as surprised as the rest of us to find himself sitting on the other side of the House. Arguably, as an emergency room physician with an insider’s knowledge of the chaos in the province’s health care system, he could have spoken out before his father was hit by a life-threatening illness.

That said, he got into trouble by trying to do the right thing. The dizzying series of turns that brought him to where is sits today illustrates both how badly Stelmach’s Conservatives mismanage everything they touch, and how deeply divided is the Conservative caucus — with a far-right faction that is closer to the Wildrose Alliance and a moderate faction deeply frightened by where their party is headed.

Last Wednesday, Sherman returned from a trip to India, apparently deeply fatigued, upset at his father’s illness and unhappy about the hard time his emergency room colleagues were giving him about the mess in their hospitals. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, he dashed off an astonishing email assailing the government’s mishandling of health care. All but calling the premier a liar, he sent it hither and yon, whence it eventually found its way to the media.

On Thursday, apparently after a talking-to by the premier, Sherman issued a rambling apology that attempted to shift blame for Alberta’s latest health care uproar from the premier to a “knucklehead” Alberta Health Services, the province’s so-called health care super board.

The premier’s office tried to pass off the matter as an insigfificant family spat, with a spokesman asserting that “the premier is not the type of person who is going to pull someone into his office and give them a dressing down.”

Well, that was then. On Friday, apparently convinced he had a license to continue to be a thorn in the government’s side, Sherman got the calamitous former health minister Ron Liepert in his gun sights and dared to criticize him for not dealing with the developing crisis in the province’s emergency rooms. He also assailed the job done by AHS Board Chair Ken Hughes, a reliably loyal old Conservative plod.

Over the weekend, presumably, the phone lines to the premier burned up and, by noon yesterday, Sherman was on his way to opprobrium of opposition.

Which leaves us where, exactly?

Well, the caucus is now without a medical doctor to speak for that constituency, which will likely suit hard-right hard-liners like Liepert and Finance Minister Ted Morton, who don’t need no stinkin’ facts to make ideological decisions about how to mismanage health care.

By the same token, it will probably deeply worry Edmonton-area moderates like Health Minister Zwozdesky, former health minister Dave Hancock and Fred Horne, chair of the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Health, who squeaked into office by 62 votes in 2008. They have been reliably informed of the mood of their Capital Region constituents on this issue.

The message has been made clear once again that caucus solidarity is more important than representing citizens or trying to fix the province’s problems — which should make life easier for the premier. At least for the moment…

As for Sherman, it’s easy to imagine he will find life in opposition uncongenial. Whatever happens in the next general election, and whatever is being said just now, it seems probable he will return to the full-time practice of medicine.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...