No one listens to the Alberta Liberals. For years the party has tried and failed to convince voters that the ruling Progressive Conservatives care more about cultivating power than good governance. But with a new leader preparing for a spring election, Liberals are hoping for a change.
Former party leader David Swann says the Liberals haven’t been able to beat the Tories for several reasons. The first is that Albertans in general are comfortable, so they don’t see problems created by a purportedly “corrupt” government.
Secondly, “the Tories have the largest spin machine in Canada, called the Public Affairs Bureau. They put out the good news every day.” Swann also says Tories are skilled campaigners, using vast public and party funds to “create a sense of strength, and of danger if people choose to move in a different direction.”
Finally, Swann admits the Liberals don’t know how to reach Albertans, otherwise people would be voting for them. “But they’re not, and we have to take responsibility for that,” he says.
He believes bad governance is the biggest issue in Alberta, but it’s a complex one that is difficult to get across in a sound bite or on voters’ doorsteps.
Enter new leader Raj Sherman. Swann believes there is a chance Sherman could be to the Liberal Party what Peter Lougheed was to the Conservatives in 1971 — a confident, straight-talking breath of fresh air that unseated the entrenched party.
Sherman may have everything the Liberals need. Like the two previous party leaders, Kevin Taft and Swann, he is a doctor who has stood up to the government, revealed actions he believed were wrong and was subsequently punished for speaking out.
If folk hero status isn’t enough, he has a lot more to offer. He was born in India but grew up in B.C., moving to Alberta to work and attend university. He is an emergency room doctor and health-care advocate who continues to work several hospital shifts every month. In 2009, an Edmonton Journal survey named him the province’s sexiest, best-dressed MLA. He earned working-class credentials by spending his youth working at his family’s lumber mill in Squamish, B.C., cleaning rooms in Motel Village and briefly driving a cab. He is politically moderate and sounds as interested in Alberta’s economic strength as he is in its health care system.
Of special interest to the Liberal party is his knowledge of the Conservative caucus’s inner machinations. Working as junior health minister from 2008 to 2010 exposed Sherman to the in-camera Tory meetings he now energetically criticizes. That knowledge could give the Liberals an edge.
“Good man” platforms won Taft and Swann public support, yet it didn’t seem to affect public opinion about the Liberal party. However, they were both characterized as quiet intellectuals — not popular traits in Alberta politics.
Swann says he could not get past what he is — low-key, a listener, someone who chooses his words with slow precision. These traits worked with his medical school students, but not in election campaigns.
Sherman stands in strong contrast to his predecessor. He is assertive, bold, a man who likes to talk. He interrupts in order to answer questions he would prefer to be asked. His outspokenness is a mixed blessing for the Liberals.
What does he think the difference is between him and previous leaders? “I’m not as nice as them, or as forgiving,” he says. “Dr. Swann and Dr. Taft, really nice guys, brilliant men.”
Sherman describes his political initiation and the events that shifted him from Tory rookie to Liberal party leader.
“I was the head emergency doctor in the province and I was an advocate. I talked to every level of government about these issues.... Dave Hancock said ‘write my policy, Raj,’ when he was running for leadership.” After helping Hancock formulate a health policy, Tory MLAs told him if he really wanted to change Alberta’s health care system he should run for office himself.
He says not long after being elected and named junior health minister, he began to notice the government’s behind-the-scene operations were not what he expected.
“At the committee meetings they would ask Ron Liepert... ‘Ron, what’s the plan with health care?’ You know what he said? He threw his hands up in the air, he goes, ‘I don’t know, we’ll figure it out as we go.’” Sherman says at first he remained loyal because he thought he was in a position to advise Liepert. “I felt I was useful so I bit my tongue.”
His eventual decision to openly criticize the government, and the Conservative party’s weird reaction, made him far more famous than any Edmonton Journal “Sexiest MLA” award ever could. A few months after being ousted from the party, Swann asked him if he would be willing to lead the Liberals.
“I had an inclination that I would not feel badly stepping down if he was prepared to step up, and he was,” says Swann.
Sherman’s verbosity and fondness for colourful accusations characterize his interviews and his performance in the legislature. In a 60-minute interview that stretches for 90, Sherman’s rapid-fire answers bounce back and forth from friendly to inflammatory to incomprehensible.
Sherman asserts that “the number one problem in Alberta politics is the centralization of power and decision making in the hands of the backroom boys.” When asked whether the backroom boys are always the same individuals, the response is one of his most coherent.
“You have to look at the election financing. Look at who financed all the PC leadership candidates. You’ll find they were all the same, it didn’t matter who the leader is. The same people are writing big cheques to all the candidates. So decisions are made in the backrooms. Many of the elected people and cabinet and caucus is forced. If they disagree they’re called crazy and thrown out. They’re forced to implement these decisions on to the people. There are no open needs assessments. We don’t ask the people what the issues are, what the problems are. I thought we were here to serve the public. They gave themselves the biggest pay raise in history, the premier and cabinet. Caucus never voted for it. Million-dollar handshakes. They’re making decisions to make their private buddies in the backrooms wealthy at the expense of the people. That’s the number one problem. The government is not open, it’s not honest. It’s not accountable....”
Sherman knows his personality is not what Liberal supporters are used to. “I didn’t really come from a life of politics. I just call it as I see it,” he says. That may be what the party needs to raise public support from the current level of 12 per cent. The Liberals have registered 30,000 new members and “supporters” — a significant increase for a party desperate to recruit members, candidates, money and volunteers before the election. Furthermore, if Sherman’s accusations are true, perhaps his intensity is justified.
Swann contends the Liberals’ soft-spoken intellectualism got them nowhere and now he is pinning his hopes on Sherman’s passion.
“We are in danger of losing democracy in this province,” says Swann. “I see the rot and the corruption in (government) and the need for change. And not everybody in it is rotten, it’s the system.” He says Sherman is still learning to trust and work with communications staff. “He’s got a very steep learning curve to take in three months... but I think we’re going to do better than we did last time.”