After becoming the Alberta Liberal Party leader in 2011, Raj Sherman inherited quite a mess.
Sherman, an emergency room doctor and former Progressive Conservative MLA, was kicked out of the PCs in 2010 after criticizing health care wait times. He then moved on to the Alberta Liberals, a party with over $1 million in debt and 92 years without holding government. And his first election as Liberal leader did not go well. He squeaked through his Edmonton riding by just over 100 votes, with the Liberals losing three of their eight seats in Alberta’s legislature.
But Sherman looks to the future with confidence. After spending little money during the 2012 provincial election, the Alberta Liberals are out of debt and aggressively promoting themselves at the grassroots. The Gauntlet recently sat down with Sherman to ask about pot, his party’s troubles and his vision for post-secondary education in Alberta.
The Gauntlet: During the last election, Alberta Liberals promised free tuition if they took government. Is this still the party policy?
Raj Sherman: Our main message was increasing the affordability, accessibility and quality of education. It was a move towards progressively decreasing tuition. We want to get young people engaged and involved.
We want to reverse all of these [post-secondary] cuts that are currently being made. In fact, we would make the biggest investment in the history of this province from early childhood to post-secondary.
Now how are you going to pay for it? I think there’s a lot of efficiencies government can find by cutting costs. We’ve seen a lot of mismanagement issues with the current government. The number one thing we have to do is better manage the money that we’re currently spending.
But we’ve got to address the issue of revenue. We’ve got a broken fiscal structure. British Columbia is the next lowest tax jurisdiction in the country. [Their revenue is] $12 billion less than us. It’s been a race to the bottom for taxes.
G: What is your party’s stance on the legalization of marijuana?
RS: This is a federal issue, but I can comment on it.
First of all, with most people who do marijuana, it’s not a gateway drug. That’s like saying milk is a gateway drink. Most people who do marijuana don’t do cocaine and heroin.
As an emergency room doctor, I’ve seen maybe a handful of people [overdose] after 100,000 patients in the emergency room. The bad drugs are cocaine, heroin and crack. In fact, the really bad drugs that are costing taxpayers money are alcohol, cigarettes, sugar and sodium. These are the things that are making people sick and costing us billions of dollars in health-care costs.
G: Have you ever smoked marijuana?
RS: Well I was a bit of a geek in high school, so I didn’t then. Later on at a high school reunion I caved into peer pressure and tried it a couple of times.
G: Was it fun?
RS: Bill Clinton said he didn’t inhale and Jack Layton said he didn’t exhale. I inhaled and exhaled and it didn’t really do much for me.
G: The Liberals did quite poorly during the last provincial election. How does the party hope to reach more voters?
RS: First of all, you’re correct. I became the leader of the party on the eve of the election. The party had this million-dollar debt and at the grassroots level the party wasn’t that active. So we did the best we possibly could.
Our strategy was to run an honest, open campaign. Discuss issues like tuition, how we’re going to fix health care and taxation. We spent the least amount of money out of any political party. [The Progressive Conservatives] spent $3.5–4 million. We spent $150,000. We’re now out of debt. And now, we’re building at the grassroots level, which involves engaging young people, families and seniors.
Our hope next election is to really refine our policy. Every two, three years, all of our policies get wiped out, and then we re-engage people at the policy convention. We need to modernize our policy and get door knocking.
But frankly, I need you young people. If you believe the Liberal policy of lowering tuition, of making education affordable and accessible; if you believe people like me who have done well should pay their fair share of tax; if you believe our seniors should get care with dignity and respect; if you think we should deal with the environment and protect the economy, please join our team.
I will say, the Liberals have not formed government in Alberta in 92 years. We have not been the source of the problems for the people of Alberta. We aim to be the source of the solutions. So I’m saying look, it will be a true miracle if we form government. So you know what, help a true miracle happen and I’ll give you my word. We will do our best to give you honest, good government. I can’t promise you that we’ll fix everything because it isn’t going to be easy. But we will deal with these issues of education, cut backs in healthcare, we will look after your grandparents. And you know what, those guys who have done well, the billionaires, they’re going to have to pay their fair share of taxes.
G: So you would raise taxes on high-income earners?
RS: Absolutely. The top one per cent has got to pay their fair share. You don’t become a billionaire without thousands of hard-working, average people who earn 40, 50, 60 grand a year, whose dream is that their kids get a college or university education or a trade so they can have a better life. That’s what I’m fighting for. I’m fighting to keep that Canadian and Albertan dream alive for the average guy.
So, the rich guys, I don’t need your vote. Nor do I need your money. But I’m telling you, I need you young people. You’ve got to stop complaining and whining. Be a part of the change that you want to see. Your generation has to do it and if you don’t, good luck because you’re going to pay taxes for the rest of your life, your parents are going to be in trouble, your kids are going to be in trouble. Unless you’re making a lot of money, good luck.