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Conservative parties squirm as fired Alberta Health exec triumphs, MLA quits opposition caucus

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Joe Anglin

Alberta's governing Progressive Conservative Party and its Opposition Wildrose Party, in addition to sharing an identical right-wing ideology, face a similar problem this morning, a situation and a person each party would very much like to see go away as quickly as possible.

In each case the circumstances have the potential to embarrass each party seriously enough with voters to impact its chances in the next general election.

For the Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Jim Prentice, the potential embarrassment is caused by the substantial settlement received by Allaudin Merali, the chief financial officer of Alberta Health Services fired in 2012 when expense claims he had filed in a previous job were reported by the CBC and became a major crisis for then-premier Alison Redford and her health-minister, Fred Horne.

Merali was back in the news yesterday after rightly declaring the $900,000 settlement he received last week was a victory in his two-year fight with the government and a vindication of his conduct in both his former jobs.

For the Wildrose Party led by Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, the potential embarrassment is caused by Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Joe Anglin, handed his hat by party members in his own riding last July when they nominated his constituency association president to replace him in the next provincial general election.

The mercurial Anglin, always ready for a fight, was back in the news yesterday in a frenzy of recriminations after quitting the party's caucus on the weekend and declaring publicly its ranks are riven by "a civil war between ideologues and pragmatists."

In the short statement sent to media and political bloggers by Merali yesterday, the former CFO for both the Capital Health Region and Alberta Health Services declared that the settlement of his claim against AHS and former Minister of Health Fred Horne "covers not just amounts that were due to me under a contractual commitment but also damages."

Merali's statement continued: "The settlement is a clear indication of two points: the decision to refuse to honor a legal contract was wrong, and the defamatory statements by Alberta Health Services and the former Minister Horne and other politicians (particularly the former premier) were irresponsible and totally inappropriate. AHS, the former minister and the former premier were not entitled to shred my contract and damage my reputation, by insinuating that my expenses under a former employer, Capital Health were in any way improper, let alone that they were a cause to terminate me.

"As AHS indicated in their press release on October 31, 2014, they are ‘'...satisfied that the termination of ... employment is properly characterized as having been without cause.' Therefore, this settlement has clearly vindicated me in that I had done nothing wrong and that my dismissal was unjust." (Emphasis added.)

In this assessment, Merali is most certainly correct.

It was clear from the get-go the expenses he filed at Capital Health in 2008 and 2009 were approved by his supervisor, CEO Sheila Weatherall, and that he was being punished years later for the political embarrassment the health region's vague expense-claims policies caused to the PC Government after the CBC story appeared.

What was bizarre was the determined insistence by Horne, Redford and the government's army of public relations specialists that no matter what his contract said they could tear it up because … well, because they felt like it.

It turns out, however, that even after more than 40 years of PC rule, the rule of law persists in Alberta and a legal contract is a legal contract -- even when the premier and her health minister don't like it.

So it can be argued, even though this is bound to be unpopular in certain journalistic quarters because of the inevitable cost to taxpayers of a settlement, that Merali's victory is a victory for everyone who believes in the rule of law.

It is worth noting in this context that Stephen Lockwood and the rest of the board of AHS, fired by Horne last year for not agreeing to tear up legal contracts with other AHS executives, were right while the minister and premier were out to lunch.

As for the well-known Alberta journalists screeching last week that the government should continue to fight Merali's claim, Premier Prentice obviously can recognize a lost cause when he sees it. So taxpayers will be spared the further burden of such foolishness.

Anglin, meanwhile, issued a statement of his own on Sunday, noting that he had written the Speaker of the Legislature asking to be seated as an Independent MLA immediately.

"It is no secret that I have been a round peg in a square hole in the Wildrose Party," Anglin wrote. "I speak my mind. I bring different experiences and a different point of view to the caucus than my colleagues. This has never been an issue for me: a strong party is made stronger by a variety of opinions."

However, he went on, "behind closed doors, the party has increasingly lost focus on its original mission of creating a true grassroots party. It has been caught up in a civil war between ideologues and pragmatists. …

"As a result of poor management and infighting, there will be a motion today by my leader, Danielle Smith, to have me removed from caucus. To be honest, this is upsetting but not surprising. It was clear by the way the party executive mishandled my nomination process last June, and by the way they mismanaged the past four by-elections, something needs to be corrected.

"The Wildrose Party is now at a crossroads. The Party's interference in local constituency matters and its lack of respect for the democratic process must be corrected if this party is to continue. … The party and its leadership are in crisis.

"This party … is now infested with an unelected backroom weed that is choking off the grassroots movement. I still have the highest regard for Danielle Smith as a person. She is intelligent and thoughtful, but in saying this I have little respect for the people advising her. Ultimately the leader bears the responsibility for addressing these problems.”

The intramural fight soon degenerated into the public accusation by Smith that Anglin had been taping caucus meetings, a claim the MLA denied. The party also withdrew its previous announcement it would hold a leadership review.

Notwithstanding the similarity of their situations, it's clearly going to be easier for the Prentice PCs to clear up their problem than it will be for the Smith Wildrose Party.

That's simply because Merali has absolutely nothing to gain from sticking around. He fought and he won -- as it was always obvious he would because he had the law and the facts on his side.

As he concluded his statement yesterday, "I am glad that this is behind me and want to get on with my life now that I have been vindicated."

Anglin, on the other hand, now has little to lose from sticking around. He fought and he lost -- and he has a nice platform for the next year or two from which to make the Wildrose Party pay for its victory.

Given his pugnacious nature -- this isn't the first time the former leader of the Alberta Greens has been in the thick of such an internal party fight -- it seems probable he'll take advantage of the opportunity.

This post also appears bon David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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