Alberta MLA booted from caucus after criticizing healthcare policies

Dr. Raj Sherman at The Institute of Health Economic Innovation Forum. - Dr. Raj Sherman at The Institute of Health Economic Innovation Forum. | John Sproule

Josh Wingrove

Edmonton— Globe and Mail Update
Published Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 4:38PM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 4:58PM ES

A maverick Alberta MLA and doctor who went public recently with criticisms of his own government’s healthcare policies has been kicked out of his party, a move panned by opposition parties as “pathetic” and a “dark day for democracy” in the province.

Raj Sherman, an emergency room doctor who entered politics just two years ago, went public last week criticizing the government’s sluggish response to what other physicians have called a “crisis” in emergency room overcrowding. The province’s emergency room wait times (particularly in Calgary and Edmonton) are far above the government’s own targets, and doctors have begun speaking out calling for reform to ease crowding.

Dr. Sherman, who served as parliamentary assistant to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, effectively broke rank to raise the alarm that his own government isn’t doing enough. On Nov. 17, he wrote an e-mail to colleagues saying he can “no longer support the healthcare decisions” made by his own government. He later publicly criticized former Health Minister Ron Liepert, who is currently Minister of Energy.

On Monday, the Progressive Conservatives elected to “suspend” Dr. Sherman indefinitely from caucus, citing Dr. Sherman’s unwillingness to comply with unspecified restrictions placed on him by his party after the e-mails became public last week. They said a set of conditions have been laid out that would allow Dr. Sherman to return to caucus; both sides declined to discuss what those conditions are, and Dr. Sherman expressed no strong desire to return to the party.

“This is an issue of caucus discipline,” PC whip Robin Campbell said tersely Monday, declining to say specifically what Dr. Sherman was ejected for. He said only the decision was nearly unanimous among caucus. (While he spoke, Premier Ed Stelmach slipped by and into the legislature, and did not speak to reporters).

A chastened Dr. Sherman said Monday he’d now sit as an independent indefinitely – joking he didn’t know where his desk would be – and continue to push for ER care reform.

“For me, it’s disappointing. I ran for public service advocating for patients,” says Dr. Sherman, who formerly led a coalition of emergency room doctors in the province in calling for an improvement in service. He was first elected in 2008, and still works weekend shifts in the ER. “I guess the rules of parliamentary democracy are such that you advocate behind the scenes. I advocated publicly. As you know, I’ve been quite vocal… for me, it’s a matter of principle. I took an oath as a physician, a covenant that I make to patients. I have a moral and ethical duty to report to the public what’s happening.”

Mr. Stelmach, questioned by other MLAs within the legislature, called the questions “theatrics” and did not address Dr. Sherman’s firing directly, saying the discussions will remain personal.

“What has done has been done,” the premier said. “All I know is there is a plan in place, and let’s get on with it.”

Outside the house, opposition parties united in criticizing the move.

“This is pathetic. It’s a dark day for democracy. These guys must have completely lost their minds, this government. They just fired an ER doctor – the only ER doctor in the government – during an ER crisis,” said Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson, a former PC member himself. “It’s unbelievable.”

In the House, New Democrat leader Brian Mason lamented the “secretive and incompetent” government, saying it was punishing a member for speaking out.

“Mr. Sherman has done what I view as a heroic thing, and he stood up against the big machine. He knew that discipline was a likely outcome and he did it anyway. I think that government MLAs should speak up on behalf of their constituents. And the government should not punish them for doing so.”