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MLA's attack on Alberta premier suggests growing crisis in Conservative caucus

The near-universal dissemination yesterday of a harshly critical, typo-filled and weirdly emotional email from Dr. Raj Sherman, Alberta's Parliamentary Assistant for health and the only physician in the Conservative caucus, is another sign of how deeply troubled the moribund party has become under Premier Ed Stelmach's leadership.

That Sherman -- MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark and also an emergency room physician -- later yesterday trotted out a rambling explanation and apology that attempted to shift blame for Alberta's latest health care uproar from the premier to Alberta Health Services, the province’s so-called health care super board, did little to reduce the damage done.

After all, as everyone in Alberta well knows, the AHS is a creature of Stelmach's government, and these days Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky seems to be calling the shots as the health authority lurches from crisis to catastrophe. So dismissing the AHS as "knuckleheads," as Sherman did in an emergency Legislative debate on emergency health care that the government gave in and allowed yesterday afternoon, is tantamount to calling Stelmach and Zwozdesky the same thing.

The latest crisis began last month with the carefully orchestrated leak of a letter from a group of emergency room physicians who warned of a "potential catastrophic collapse" in many urban emergency wards. The government managed to sidestep an NDP call for an emergency legislative debate on the issue Oct. 25, partly because Liberal Opposition Leader David Swann, also a physician, apparently forgot to show up for the vote.

But the crisis continued at a vigorous boil until yesterday, after Sherman pitched in with his emotional missive on Wednesday. The former federal Liberal supporter pointed the epistle at a long list of colleagues in the health care system plus many of his Conservative caucus-mates and let fly.

The letter harshly assailed the government for its mishandling of health care delivery in Alberta, especially the disastrous conditions in the province’s emergency rooms. In it,     Sherman all but called the premier a liar.

"The premier made a promise to the ER doctors in writing and has broken his promise not only to the ER doctors, but also to the seniors, the 1.8 million Albertans who present for emergency care and their 2 million family members, and to all frontline healthcare professionals," Sherman wrote. "I will be meeting the premier today and my progressive conservative caucas (sic) colleagues tomorrow to discuss my future in his government as my trust in him and his cabinet is severly (sic) tarnished."

Sherman ended his e-message with the words, "feel free to forward to whomever you wish," an invitation that seems to have been taken at face value by everyone who received the email. Copies, of course, where swiftly sent to the gutter press. At current rates of duplication, indeed, everyone in Alberta with an email account should have received a copy by tomorrow evening. (Click here to read an unedited version of Sherman's email in its entirety.)

Stelmach's loyalists, unsurprisingly, were soon whispering that Sherman is having an emotional breakdown and ought not to be taken too seriously. However, at the same time, the premier's office was publicly handling the case of the congenial and popular West Edmonton ER doc with a degree of caution suitable for handling radioactive materials.

Indeed, the kid-glove treatment received by Sherman from the premier's office suggests the Conservative Party's inner circle has been badly shaken by this latest development in this latest crisis of public confidence in the health care system.

A year ago, Sherman would have been booted from the caucus for such an act of disloyalty faster than you could say "Guy Boutelier." At any rate, Boutelier, then the government MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo and a former minister in Ralph Klein's cabinet, was skidded quickly enough in July 2009 when he dared to suggest the premier had broken a promise to his constituents when a seniors' home was not completed in his riding.

In Sherman's case, however, a spokesperson for the premier gently characterized his email as an understandable family spat. "From time to time in any family you have disagreements," Cam Hantiuk told the Edmonton Journal. "The premier is not the type of person who is going to pull someone into his office and give them a dressing down."

Not any more, at any rate. Leastways, not with an MLA like Sherman, whom the public tends to react to as a nice young man and committed physician, which may in fact be a pretty accurate portrayal. As for Boutilier, who suffered from a caucus reputation as a loose cannon, he's long gone to the Wildrose Alliance caucus with a smile on his face.

For his part, Sherman now explains his outburst was the result of stress from his father's illness and being reamed out by his fellow emergency room docs about the chaotic state if their department last week.

But the gentle treatment received by Sherman raises the question of how firm the once-iron-fisted premier's grip remains on his increasingly restive caucus.

In recent days, there have been other rumoured caucus blow-ups behind closed doors as the emergency room crisis, which the government seems not to have anticipated at all, generated enough friction with the Alberta public for Conservatives MLAs to feel the heat.

One wonders how long it can be before a member of cabinet openly challenges the premier as Sherman did.

Could the next act in this drama be for Stelmach to be summoned to caucus meeting with instructions to surrender his leadership at the top of the agenda, as happened to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell last month?

This is extremely unlikely, one supposes. This is Alberta, after all. Still, if it were to happen, it’s hard to imagine Alberta's stubborn premier doing the same thing as Campbell in the face of such an ultimatum and making a virtue of necessity by announcing his retirement.

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

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