Attack on Kent Hehr highlights deepening fissures in Alberta Liberal ranks

Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr with a crowd of Liberalberta supporters in the background. (Bad joke. I apologize.) Below: Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman.

An angry and public attack last week on Liberal MLA Kent Hehr by Alberta Liberal Party President Todd Van Vliet suggests the party’s caucus is splintering under the leadership of former Progressive Conservative Raj Sherman.

Mr. Van Vliet’s rambling and bitter attack on Mr. Hehr was prompted by the Calgary-Buffalo MLA’s contribution of a guest post to the Daveberta blog, in which he mused about the victory of the Conservatives in the recent Calgary Centre by-election, a race in which 60 per cent of the votes cast were shared among three progressive candidates.

Since there was so little difference in the core beliefs of the Liberal, Green and NDP candidates in the federal race, Mr. Hehr wondered, wouldn’t it have made more sense to run a single progressive candidate against the Conservatives?

The lesson of this at the provincial level should be obvious, Mr. Hehr concluded, accurately if not particularly realistically: “The center/center-left in this province will not form government until we are in one big-tent party.”

Nothing new here and, seeing as he’s a very smart man, Mr. Hehr is certainly as aware as the rest of us of just how hard it would be in practice to stitch together the big tent he proposes. Indeed, Alberta Liberals before Dr. Sherman took the party’s helm have been preaching the gospel of progressive unity (under a Liberal banner, of course) for as long as most of us can recall.

Liberal pleas for New Democrat supporters to vote strategically for the almost-progressive Liberals would appear to be deeply embedded in that party’s political DNA.

So it was surprising that a party official reacted at all, let alone the way Mr. Van Vliet did – in a sharply worded press release that accused Mr. Hehr of “back room political engineering,” possibly with Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservative government, and all but invited him to quit the Liberal caucus.

“MLAs have their own opinions and even can choose to cross the floor and join another party if they disagree with their own party’s directions,” Mr. Van Vliet wrote. “While Mr. Hehr may be working in good faith to create a stronger alternative to the PCs, working to eliminate one’s own party would not seem to be the best way to do that.”

It’s impossible for those of us who are not Alberta Liberal insiders to know for certain if Dr. Sherman encouraged and supported Mr. Van Vliet’s eruption, but it seems likely. At any rate, other than telling a reporter Mr. Hehr is free to speak his mind, Dr. Sherman has maintained a studied silence on the issue since Mr. Van Vliet’s outburst. The Liberal leader also seems to be in no rush to reassure Mr. Hehr publicly that he remains welcome in the party’s five-member Legislative caucus.

Now, we need to pause here for a moment for the benefit of readers who don’t follow Alberta politics closely to consider clearly just who Mr. Hehr is. In one sentence, he’s a widely respected MLA with an inspiring story who would be welcome in any political caucus in the Legislature – well, except perhaps the one he’s a member of right now. Indeed, he has been courted by more than one of them.

At 43, Mr. Hehr has an unusual and uplifting story: a talented young athlete who hoped some day to become a physical education teacher, he was struck by a bullet while a bystander near drive-by shooting in 1991 and became a quadriplegic. Instead of despairing, he completed a BA in Canadian studies and a law degree, practiced law, became an articulate advocate for the disabled and against gun violence, and was elected to the Legislature in 2008.

If he were a member of the government party, Mr. Hehr would certainly be a cabinet minister – and don’t imagine for a moment that’s not been made clear to him by Premier Redford’s PCs.

Yet Mr. Hehr has so far remained steadfastly a Liberal, even after his party was sent packing as the Official Opposition by the far-right Wildrose Party in the 2012 election.

This is not to say Mr. Hehr hasn’t looked around for a respectable way out of the increasingly dysfunctional Alberta Liberal caucus. In 2010, before Dr. Sherman became the party leader, he briefly entered the Calgary mayoral race but pulled out before the election when it became evident his victory was not in the cards.

At the moment, it is fair to say, he is the only member of the caucus who could be described as a credible and available alternative to Dr. Sherman as the leader.

That fact may put into context Mr. Van Vliet’s grim-sounding reminder to Mr. Hehr that “Liberal bylaws state that membership in the party is open to those who ‘subscribe to the principles, aims and objectives of the party.’ Mr. Hehr, more than anyone, should understand that eliminating this party through a merger would not be within the objectives of the party. At the very least he must know that such talk would create uncertainty.” (Emphasis added.)

It is not impossible, given all this, that Mr. Hehr is indeed considering his options. Other members of the caucus are truly indistinguishable in their views from the New Democrats.

So maybe Dr. Sherman will succeed in his quest to turn the Alberta Liberals not just into the Liberalberta Party, but into the Raj Sherman Party of Alberta – although perhaps not in quite the way he anticipated.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

5 Comments on "Attack on Kent Hehr highlights deepening fissures in Alberta Liberal ranks"

  1. Will Munsey says:

    This is all very interesting. It seems, however, quiet has been restored to the home front. I wonder how Kent’s Pints and Politics Night in Calgary on Wednesday will go. A lot of interesting people claim to be going.

  2. ronmac says:

    Reminds me of an old joke which I just made up.

    How many Liberalbertans does it take to change a light bulb?

    First of all they wouldn’t be calling it “changing a light bulb” since it implies something trivial and Albertans deserve much better.

    Instead they would be calling it a “lightbulb enhancement program.” Or they would initiate a policy of “lightbulb refinement” and send it to commitee.

    This is distinctively different from the other parties like the Greens would simply cut off all electricity.

    Or the Wildrose who would privatize it, pay the worker 3 cents an hour, have a news conference announcing how much money they were saving, and later hit you with a $800,000 bill for administrative fees.

    Or the NDP who would replace the bulb with super low-wattage models so weak that’s it’ll be like drinking reheated three-day old coffee from Tim Hortons.

    • david says:

      What’s with you, Ronmac? If you were a good Knee-Dip like me, you’d LIKE drinking reheated three-day old coffee from Tim Horton’s. Bathwater’s good too.

  3. Pragmatist says:

    D.C., dippers have already refused a merger with the ND’s. Yes, they did. Brian said it is old news, so did Raj and David Swann, yes they did. Read the paper.

    Do you think, hypothetically speaking, Toryland may have hypothetically concocted this whole Hehr affair, and timed it with the grilling of Raj during the inquiry.

    Dave, the real article you should be writing is how forcefully and brutally, the sham inquiry, along with a sham council and Ignorant, potentially loyalist judge have baselessly carried on for three hours against Dr. Sherman, but casually brushed aside a hugely overdue grilling by the two guys who actually spurred the infamous queue jumping memo, only to distance all memory of it?

    THe cookie monster spurs the memo, gets a convenient memory lapse, in fact, a lot of health services execs get memory lapses and get an easy ride.

    Dippers, like you have lost the moral and ethical will to do the right thing and side with people are trying to do the right thing.

    Rest assured, the timing of the alleged revolt by Kxnt Hxhr and the Grilling of Raj by the Sham inquiry are no coincidences. Yes, they are NOT coincidences.

    Any merger will not translate into votes, but only translate into re-entrenching Tory power. In that respect, one has to wonder, did this MLA even contemplate what he was actually doing, or is he stxpid and oblivious, or waging a proxy war for the Tories? Hmmmm……..

  4. Art says:

    I suspect it will never happen, but Kent and Laurie Blakeman need to walk away from the steaming remains of the Alberta Liberal party and join the NDP caucus. Neither party is likely to agree to a merger. The two of them are indistinguishable from other New Democrats, and the end result of their floor crossing would be exactly what Kent is advocating for – the Liberals will die and the progressive vote will rally behind the NDP. Hell, Kent could probably get elected leader when Mason steps down.

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