Ralph Klein: Joker, smoker … trailblazer - Macleans.ca

Ralph Klein: Joker, smoker … trailblazer

MP Joan Crockatt explains why the plain-spoken premier of Alberta was anything but average

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'Call him politically incorrect, it was more like politically astute,' writes MP Joan Crockatt. (Fred Chartrand, CP)

Ralph Klein, an icon of Canadian politics, died at noon on March 29 ending a political career of such brilliance that the glare astonishes us still.

The accolades and anecdotes piling after the maverick Alberta premier’s death showed a remarkable reverence for this exceptional leader who led from the middle. He slipped into retirement in 2006 and galloping dementia quickly snatched him away and the people’s politician was gone.

“RIP Ralph. You were pretty cool for a politician,” Ben Spaderman said on Twitter.

“I was a huge fan of the man – his love of country was unrivalled – his passion for his ‘people,’ unequalled,” said fellow Calgarian and former Dragon’s Den mogul Brett Wilson.

Pundits were uncharacteristically in agreement about this most irreverent of politicians.

“The public thought, ‘there goes me. There goes a guy like me,’” said Mount Royal University’s Duane Bratt.

“The magic of Klein … was personality politics all the way. He’d give a speech to a newcomer’s club, mention a few bums and creeps, and it would be a national story,” CTV’s Don Martin, Klein’s biographer, told the Alberta premier’s one-time employer, CTV Calgary.

Whether his years as a journalist honed his spider sense of what mattered to the people, or he gravitated to journalism because of it, is a matter of debate. What is indisputable is that Klein’s political instincts were blisteringly hot. He often said his secret was to find out where the parade was going and get out in front. “Except he always seemed to know the route before anyone else,” Martin added. His then-radical idea about balancing Alberta’s $2.3 billion deficit budget and his pledge to pay off the $23 billion debt when he ran for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta in 1992 changed Canada’s thinking.

In the thick of it, he installed an overhead sign on the highway into Edmonton that featured two words: “Think Differently.”

For the first half of Ralph Philip Klein’s life, if you’d told people around him that he would change the political trajectory of Canada from coast to coast, they’d have told you you’d had too many beers.

Ralph was all too familiar with having too many beers, but his influence spurred not only the revival of the Alberta economy after the post-National Energy Program doldrums, but showed the way for the great turnaround of 50 years of economic drought in Saskatchewan by Premier Brad Wall, and informed the budget-balancing quest of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Economic Action Plan delivered last week.

Klein’s greatest accomplishment came in what he called slaying the deficit monster. He balanced Alberta’s books in three years – catapulting himself to soaring popularity. Soon all provinces and Ottawa were working to balance their budgets for the first time in decades. And no, he didn’t leave Alberta’s infrastructure lacking, as the revisionists would have you believe. In fact, the burgeoning growth and strength of the Alberta economy thanks to low taxes and balanced budgets caused such a job spurt that Canadians flocked to Alberta, and the newcomers needed dozens of new schools and hospitals. Such is the price of success. Others could do well to emulate it.

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Ralph chose his popular outdoor Stampede breakfast to announce that Alberta had paid off its $23 billion debt – in full. It was a victorious moment. We all knew we’d done our part. In Ralph’s pull-no-punches style — that didn’t include any fudging with “net debt,” “capital debt” or “non-book” borrowing against our savings.

He was a straight shooter. When his aim was off, he apologized. When he was on, he had a rare genius for putting every situation into a sound bite – making it a TV-worthy moment. His training as a former TV reporter enhanced his natural aversion to hiding what was blindingly obvious to the public. That made him truly beloved. He said what the average Albertan was thinking. Like the farmers who found mad-cow disease in their herds might have adopted the “shoot, shovel and shut up” mode of action. Like criminals who robbed banks and purse-snatched were “bums and creeps” who should go home. Like giving the middle-finger salute right back to an in-your-face protestor. When Klein went too far, folks readily forgave and even silently cheered.

He disarmed his critics and captivated the public. He looked right into their living rooms through the camera, Craig Ferguson style, without the eyebrow lift. He addressed them eye to eye and left them feeling like the good guys had a chance.

In three short years Klein rid Alberta of a $2.3 billion deficit and then proceeded to systematically decapitate its offspring, the debt monster. But not before narrowly escaping an early PC caucus revolt. Journalists vividly recall a dustup in the hallway outside the Alberta Legislature cafeteria one noon hour. The young head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a kid named Jason Kenney, encountered Klein on his way to grab some lunch. Kenney shot a barb at Klein, telling the premier he should cut the “gold-plated pensions” being readied for collection by the Lougheed and Getty-era politicians planning to retire before the election. Never one to back down from a scrap, Klein sparred with Kenney. A lot of finger-pointing and raised voices ensued. The press gallery spilled out of the tiny offices next to the cafeteria to catch the opening act in what was to become an entertaining diet of drama and surprise while Klein was premier. Ralph left red-faced and Kenney knew he’d hit the top of the evening newscasts. But that was just Round One.

After the next cabinet meeting, Ralph emerged with a bombshell.

“I’m cancelling the MLA pensions from here forward. All of them,” he told the media. “Nobody’s getting them. They’re wrong. Full stop.”

We were stunned. He’d listened. It was a gutsy move that cut the legs out from under the bombastic perk-collectors in cabinet who were counting on major cash haul. Later, Klein chose the election slogan “He listens, He cares.” As vacuous as it was, no one could dispute it.

Behind those cabinet doors Klein had faced an open revolt and a barrage of criticism from the “old boys” who demanded retirement windfalls. Klein told them this: ‘If you don’t want to be re-elected again, go ahead. I’m going to go out there right now to tell the media that I’m getting rid of the pensions. And I dare any of you to go out there after me and tell those reporters why you should get them.”

Not one did.

Klein turned a 20 per cent approval rating in the polls into a decisive election win.

He faced down judges, doctors and 2,500 raucous civil servants who rallied on the legislature steps, to decry him for asking every civil servant to take a 5 per cent wage cut. His chief of staff came down to the press gallery and said, “Ralph’s going out to talk to them in case any of you want to come.” The crowd was mad. They were loud. They tried to shout him down. Ralph stood there and took it, then he told them what they wanted wasn’t happening. “Don’t Blink,” was his motto. Everyone would play the same part in cutting the deficit.

What influenced this high-school dropout to spread a fire across the Prairies? Preston Manning’s Reform Party Blue Book – released four years before Klein was elected -, Alberta Liberal leader Laurence Decore’s digital debt clock that was recently emulated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the University’s Calgary School. All of them set the scene for Klein’s fiscal conservatism. They rejected the Keynesian economics that had chained Canadians to bloated debts and deficits across Canada. But Klein himself proved fiscal conservativism’s best champion; he showed balancing a budget could be accomplished. He also stimulated an economic boom in Alberta that’s lasted to this day, freeing millions in interest payments for government programs, all the while winning the hearts and the respect, of voters.

University of Manitoba’s Wayne Simpson observed in a North American study, “Klein’s balanced budget legislation led to balanced budget legislation in seven Canadian provinces and 49 U.S. states. It concentrated on spending restraint, budget balancing and deficit reduction.”

He inherited the Progressive Conservative party in 1992 after a rudderless big spending era and capitalized on the flavor of the day in taking on the mantra of deficit slayer.

But when Ralph took on the task, he intended to complete it. How would he sell it? Finance Minister Jim Dinning would do the hard part inside government. Ralph would get the public on side by asking all Albertans to follow the call to action: “Don’t Blink.”

Few believed he would or could do it. That made it all the more remarkable. Klein was easy to underestimate. Easy-going, plainspoken, a regular-looking guy who stood not much more than 5 foot 7. Always a bit overweight, he chain smoked, loved to frequent late-night Chinese restaurants, and had an acknowledged drinking habit that he finally kicked after an embarrassing incident at a homeless shelter during an official visit.

His one regret was that he didn’t proceed with his announced “Third Way” for health care – amalgamating a range of public and private health care. He backed down and always regretted it.

In the grief following news of his death, you saw much of what was exceptional about Ralph Klein. He did what politicians of all stripes continually promise, but few deliver: he said what others were actually thinking.

Call him politically incorrect, it was more like politically astute. And his popularity showed it. Ralph’s guiding lights were an average but fictional couple – Martha and Henry from Rimby, Alberta, against whom he tested all ideas.

But Ralph, himself, was anything but average. Albertans understood they had something special even when the former CFCN-TV crime reporter plunked his name down on a ballot to run for mayor in 1980 after being disgusted with what he saw as ineptitude at Calgary City Hall. He was already notorious for capers like climbing up in the rafters over council chambers to eavesdrop on an in-camera meeting and after becoming mayor, pouring drinks at noon for  ’88 Olympics visitors to his Mayoralty office.

After boosting his plurality as Calgary mayor to 90 per cent, Albertans gave him four terms as Premier.

He was a guy who preferred a beer at the backwater St. Louis Hotel in Calgary to a dinner with high rollers. He celebrated his biggest election win at an Edmonton airport motel, and he often habituated Martini’s Bar with the press gallery – the place they often got their best scoops.

He was more than a dominant Canadian political figure. He was a trailblazer. Let us hope Canadians continue to follow him down that path.

Klein-isms:

“Don’t blink.”

“Think differently.”

“Slay the deficit dragon.”

“Eastern bums and creeps get the hell out of town.”

“That is a crock, to say the least.”

“They shouldn’t be telling us how to run our health care system – that is a provincial responsibility.”

“Abortion is between a woman, her doctor, and God.”

“People who come to rob banks, mug senior citizens and steal purses are not welcome.”

“Welcome to the miracle on the Prairies.”

“Welcome to the Alberta Advantage.”

“Welcome to Ralph’s World.”

We miss Ralph’s shoot-from-the-hip style, his disarming charm, his irreverence, and his crooked smile.

Most of all we miss him telling us what we all know: “you can’t spend money you don’t have.”

The contrary “is a crock, to say the least.”

Joan Crockatt was the Legislature Bureau Chief for the Edmonton Journal from 1991-1995 and is now the Member of Parliament for Calgary Centre.