Alberta government can't win its battle with Raj Sherman
Tories' ghost of session past has become a folk hero
By Graham Thomson, edmontonjournal.com )
They even talked about the dismal level of public discourse in the fall sitting of the legislature, where both government and opposition members traded insults, not ideas.
They did not, I am assured, burn MLA Raj Sherman in effigy, nor did they even throw darts at a picture of their former colleague, who was tossed from caucus last week.
They discussed having a more dignified spring session in February. When they did mention Sherman, I am told, they did so only to remind each other that the first rule of talking about Raj Sherman in public is not to talk about Raj Sherman in public.
It is Fight Club without any fight.
Government MLAs are exhausted, both physically and politically.
Physically, because of all-night debating sessions where they tried to defend their spotty record on health care; politically because of all-night debating sessions where they failed to defend their spotty record on health care.
The only reason any of them are smiling is at the thought the fall sitting is behind them, receding in the rear-view mirror.
The problem, however, is that sitting in the back seat is Raj Sherman. He just won't go away.
He may have been ejected from caucus for criticizing his fellow MLAs, specifically former health minister Ron Liepert, but they can't get rid of him. He is like the uninvited ghost of Christmas Past come to remind everyone of the government's sins on health care.
It was Sherman's original e-mail critical of Premier Ed Stelmach and cabinet that started the chain reaction that led to his ejection from caucus, Stephen Duckett's firing as president of Alberta Health Services and the resignation of four directors from the AHS board.
He was also the catalyst for the all-night legislative debates and is the reason why government members look like they expect Santa to put a large lump of coal in their stocking -- and then beat them with it.
They absolutely don't know how to fight back. Sherman has become something of a folk hero, and government MLAs look vindictive when they try to counterpunch.
In the past two weeks of the fall session, they have displayed the defensive skills of a baby seal during hunting season.
Looking particularly doe-eyed was Tory MLA Fred Horne, who tried to defend himself against concerted opposition allegations that he led a smear campaign against Sherman by placing a call to Dr. P.J. White, president of the Alberta Medical Association, to voice concerns about Sherman's mental health.
White, in turn, called three doctors about Sherman's emotional state. Both Horne and White insist they talked merely as two friends concerned about the state of a third.
It's true the three are friends, but the political optics of Horne's call were horrible.
The fact is Horne wasn't simply a member of the public calling someone else about a mutual friend. He is the parliamentary assistant for health who phoned the head of the AMA, who happens to be a psychiatrist, about the mental health of a political foe, a foe that the government doesn't know how to shut up.
White issued an apology on Thursday, saying he had talked to Sherman: "I was unequivocal in expressing my deep regret for the way events had transpired and for playing a part in the situation that resulted in negative consequences."
Horne won't talk about Sherman, in part because the government desperately wants to move on, and because the government is leery of what legal action Sherman might be contemplating after hiring high-profile Edmonton lawyer Brian Beresh. Beresh and his client will make an announcement Saturday on the front steps of the legislature in conjunction with a Friends of Medicare rally. They won't provide details, but it's a safe bet he and Sherman are not launching a fundraiser for the premier.
Fear of possible legal action has not ended this story, merely driven it behind closed doors. Horne's friends are discreetly seeking out journalists to plead Horne's case in private, insisting the rookie MLA called White out of a sincere concern for Sherman. Horne's only sin, they say, is being politically naive, not realizing how his phone call could be viewed as something nefarious.
However, by continuing to defend Horne, they are obliquely continuing what could be construed as a whisper campaign against Sherman. They are caught in a Catch-22.
The government simply cannot win this fight. No matter what it does it looks like a bully or incompetent.
Even when it tries to move the debate forward, it stumbles. On Tuesday, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky proudly launched his Becoming the Best: Alberta's 5-year Health Action Plan to solve long wait times for medical care, which he hoped would provide political cover from opposition attacks. However, sources say the government has received more than a few calls from Albertans outraged that health has deteriorated to the point it will take five years to fix the problems.
The government's only strategy is to escape the legislature for the Christmas break and hope that things quieten down in the New Year.
Of course, there's as much chance of that happening as decorum returning to the legislature.