The ruling Progressive Conservatives kicked provincial MLA and physician Raj Sherman out of government on Monday, after he broke ranks with his party and joined other physicians in declaring a crisis of overcrowding in Alberta's emergency rooms.
It's the second time in two years that Premier Ed Stelmach has booted out a colleague for speaking against the party line. Now Dr. Sherman - who still works weekend shifts in emergency - will take his battle across the aisle and sit as an independent.
"I'm not quitting, I'm not crossing the floor [to a rival party] and I'm not going to stop advocating for patients," said Dr. Sherman, who calmly called his ousting "disappointing."
"I guess the rules of parliamentary democracy are such that you advocate behind the scenes. And I advocated publicly."
Neither Dr. Sherman nor the Tories will explicitly say what prompted the first-term politician's dismissal, but it is undoubtedly tied to his recent critiques of the government.
Last week, he wrote an e-mail saying he "can no longer support the healthcare decisions made" by his government. That prompted a meeting with Mr. Stelmach and the party, but Dr. Sherman stayed on board.
He made waves again with a stinging rebuke of former health minister and current Energy Minister Ron Liepert. He refused to retract those comments on Monday.
All told, the PC caucus chose to rid itself of its maverick. "This was an issue of caucus discipline," said PC whip Robin Campbell, adding it was a "unanimous" decision.
The news of Dr. Sherman's dismissal was one of two blows to the Stelmach government Monday. In a quarterly fiscal update, it announced that the projected deficit for the 2010-2011 year had grown by $257-million to approximately $5-billion, on reduced oil production and a strong Canadian dollar. Overall non-renewable resource revenue was strong, however, up slightly from the initial budget.
The province is taking the shortfall out of its sustainability fund, and will as such remain debt free. The government said a $384-million spike in forecast spending was due to the costs of fighting forest fires and floods during the summer. Nevertheless, opposition parties pounced on the government's inability to balance its books as quickly as they did on the firing of Dr. Sherman.
Last year, former environment minister Guy Boutilier was kicked out for saying his party wasn't doing enough for his community of Fort McMurray. But the dismissal of Dr. Sherman has legs that the dismissal of the mercurial and often outspoken Mr. Boutilier did not.
The government faces mounting pressure to overhaul the province's health system, and is struggling with a perception of inaction. Infamously, the head of the provincial health board, Stephen Duckett, avoided reporters after a crucial meeting Friday by insisting he was too busy eating a cookie to answer questions. The opposition called for Mr. Duckett to be let go; instead, Dr. Sherman was.
"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," steamed MLA Rob Anderson, one of a handful of former PC members who have defected to the upstart Wildrose Alliance. "It's pathetic."
New Democrat Brian Mason called Dr. Sherman heroic. "He stood up against the big machine. He knew that discipline was a likely outcome and he did it anyway."
Dr. Sherman will serve as an independent indefinitely, though it's unclear whether he'll become an outspoken critic of his former party. Mr. Campbell said Dr. Sherman might one day return to the PC party, while Dr. Sherman said the party knows what it needs to do to silence him.
If he were to join another party (Wildrose welcomed the other caucus outcast, Mr. Boutilier), it would leave Mr. Stelmach facing a formidable foe with a keen understanding of a key topic. Health care is expected to be the top issue of the next election, loosely set for early 2012.
Dr. Sherman said he doesn't yet know what his future will hold, saying it was a desire for health-care reform that led him to run for election in 2008. He's previously served as head of an association of emergency room doctors, a job in which he began raising alarms.
"To be honest, I just wish the darn health-care system was fine, so I wouldn't have to be in the legislature in the first place," Dr. Sherman said. "We have a system in this country that's broken. It has to be fixed. It simply must be fixed. And really, what I'd really like to talk about now is the issues."
With that, he darted into the legislature, joking he had to find his new chair.