Ralph Klein, R.I.P.: the deceptive shape of a shadow

In the bustle of obituaries, Colby Cosh sets the record straight

Ralph Klein, the former premier of Alberta, has died at 70. He shall not now ever be able to collect on the vast debt of apologies he is owed by calumniators, false chroniclers, lazy pundits, and political enemies. The misunderstandings of Ralph have been copious and mostly deliberate. He is still routinely characterized as an anti-gay social conservative in league with sinister theocratic forces, even though he was personally about as churchy as an alley cat. More importantly, he took a diamond-hard line against the use of the “notwithstanding” clause after the Supreme Court wrote sexual orientation into Alberta’s discrimination law in the Vriend decision; and he insisted the public accept the court’s verdict.

He is accused of failing to maximize the public benefits of Alberta’s resource wealth and “save” oil and gas funds for the future, although government resource revenues grew more than fourfold in his 14 years as premier and the net financial position of the province improved by $43 billion. Both promptly collapsed under his bamboozled successor Ed Stelmach, and have not yet recovered to Ralphian levels. Klein is also charged with failing to pay enough conscious attention to economic diversification, a concept that served as the pretext for a hundred costly boondoggles under earlier Conservative regimes; yet somehow he succeeded in presiding over an Alberta economy whose GDP moved sharply away from energy-dependence, and which saw the emergence of previously unimaginable non-energy businesses like software maker Matrikon and game manufacturer BioWare. Whether or not you care to give an iota of credit to Klein, his rule coincided with Alberta becoming a place young technicians and entrepreneurs don’t have to be stupid not to leave.

Klein is also lambasted for a supposed history of anti-Ottawa militancy, but was the best friend the Canada Health Act ever had in Alberta, and he greeted the infamous “firewall letter,” which was addressed to him, with snores. Hysterics who now wave that letter in the face of signatory Stephen Harper—which is obviously fair—never acknowledge that it asked only for powers Quebec already exercises. The Alberta Pension Plan proposed within the letter would have starved the rest of the country’s financial security arrangements for the elderly, to Alberta’s direct benefit, and Ottawa could not possibly have stopped it. You’re welcome.

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Liberals within Alberta have lately gotten religion about fiscal discipline and sustainable budgeting, but where is the corresponding reconsideration of Premier Klein? It is interesting that conservatives argue that two Ralph Kleins led Alberta—an early, austere one and a later, profligate one. You will see some of them making that argument now, in the bustle of obituaries. The argument contains some truth but overlooks that both Kleins managed to run consistent, increasing surpluses.

From 1993 to 1999, cruel axe-wielding Ralph I shrank overall government expenditures slightly in nominal dollars. But revenues were growing only at a rate of 1.6% per year. Spending grew at a 3.4% pace under Ralph II (1999-2006), but with revenues growing at 4.4% a year, this was still a species of stewardship that would have provided for tax stability, and even more rate cuts, in the long run. Again one perceives a distinct contrast with his successor, who blew a tire and went arse-over-teakettle trying to ride Alberta’s fiscal cycle.

There is a basic failure among diehard enemies of the Klein government to accept the evidence that his energy, privatization, and flat-tax policies increased the Alberta government’s capacity to spend and provide services—that the more we got of Klein, the safer and more lavish their cherished government entitlements appeared to be. They are not at all safe now; the profoundest irony of Klein’s demise is that it has arrived at a moment in which present premier Alison Redford faces choices like those Klein confronted when he captured the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1992.

Indeed, when Redford’s heavily obfuscated budget plans are translated into English, one sees that the next few years in Alberta must inevitably resemble the early days of Kleinism. Premier Redford is trying to protect spending on infrastructure to prevent a “deficit” in upkeep on buildings and transport, of the sort that materialized after Klein’s initial austerities. But operational spending, particularly on personnel expenses, is bound to be slashed, Klein-fashion. And the slashes will have to be all the deeper if the bridges are going to get painted. A fierce fight with the public sector (whose unfunded pension liabilities grew 80% between Klein’s last budget and Stelmach’s second) is already taking shape, with teachers, doctors, and pharmacists on the verge of all-out war over their pay envelopes. Haven’t the Klein-haters who fell over themselves to vote for internationalist, socially concerned Alison seen this movie before?

A liberal case for Ralph Klein would start by accepting that economic growth is a definite necessity for a stable welfare state, whether or not the converse is true, and that government programs are meant to serve the citizen first, and government employees, as such, not at all. That case will go unmade. Before Ralph was goaded into Calgary politics by an ambitious Keg waiter named Rod Love, he was a television news reporter covering local government. His approach to governing remained that of a reporter: suspicious of power, alert to wastefulness and venality, hyper-aware in a hacky, self-educated way of what economists now call “public choice theory.” That’s scholarese for “how government employees, like any other mammal, will serve their own interests even if it means ignoring or opposing those of the public.”

Albertans find it instructive to watch Ontario politicians debate the privatization of liquor retailing, which Klein’s cabinet bulldog, Dr. Stephen West, executed almost overnight in 1993. It was perhaps the representative policy move of the Klein era, the best symbol of his approach to government. Today one will hear Ontarians telling themselves the most bizarre things about Alberta in order to support the idiot belief that booze is a natural monopoly. “You can’t even get red wine there! All they have in the stores is various flavours of corn mash and antifreeze! The streets resound with the white canes of the blinded!” Talk to the saner residents and you rapidly discover the real root of Ontarians’ positive feeling for the LCBO, which is esthetic. It’s just nicer to buy a handle of Maker’s Mark from someone who makes a union wage and has a vague halo of officialdom. You leave the shop feeling okay about your vice.

Klein was liked by Albertans, not because of some mythic popular touch, but because there wasn’t an ounce of tolerance for this sort of thing in him. Alcohol was something he understood very well. (Too well.) People do not need liquor to be flogged to them any harder than the manufacturers already do; put a man in prison and he will make the stuff in the toilet starting on day two. What the old ALCB was really marketing to the public, and what the LCBO markets now, was itself—its own role as social protector/moral approver/tastemaker. Klein identified that part of the system as a parasitic growth, a vestige with no function but its own preservation; and he had West ectomize it with the swiftness of a medieval barber.

The same surgical instinct was applied over and over, to everything from the cushy upper ranks of the civil service to low-volume hospitals duplicating procedures at a quantifiable cost in lives. Occasionally the objections were rational, as objections to the activity of a scalpel-happy surgeon might be. More often they were irrational squeamishness.

Why did this happen in Alberta in a way it did not anywhere else, even if Mike Harris later followed Klein’s model and the NDP government of Saskatchewan made many of the same public-service cuts? Believers in the special virtuousness of government are still posting handbills about Klein’s Kutz—one would swear, going out and about in Edmonton some days, that he was still in charge—but Klein in retirement never faced the kind of elite odium Harris still does in Ontario. Klein has had the benefit of a sympathetic intellectual apparatus, the so-called “Calgary School,” and leading Alberta journalists really did not apply the same kind of resistance to his policies that Harris faced.

The ways in which Ralph Klein is misunderstood outside Alberta seem to mirror the ways in which Alberta itself is misunderstood; although attachment to religion is actually lower in Alberta than in Ontario and the Atlantic Provinces, it is Alberta that is thought of as an atavistic, “socially conservative” hate factory. The real difference between Alberta and other provinces is more structural than ideological or religious. Alberta has a strong lingering streak of laissez-faire utilitarianism because most of its citizens are no more than a generation removed from those who came here for jobs.

Albertans do not, as a rule, have generations of ancestors buried here, so they do not yet think about Alberta by resorting to a familial paradigm. That is to say, they do not think of their province as a social unit which has some necessary illogical features, which must tolerate established habits even when expensive or irksome, and which recognizes a special responsibility not only to protect vulnerable members but to cater to them. The sense of competition (and the urgency with which competitiveness is sought) is strong; that of reciprocal duties, weak. Albertans’ relationship to their neighbours is based on friendly exchange, not unconditional love (feigned or otherwise). They lack some of the instinctive deference to paternalistic authority that the sociologist Edgar Friedenberg identified in Old Canada. Not coincidentally, Alberta often displays the lowest levels of pro-monarchist sentiment among English Canadian regions, as it did in a February Harris-Decima poll.

This master theory, you will notice, explains quite a lot about Alberta—perhaps too much to be credible. It explains why Albertans sometimes seem monstrous or unnatural to Easterners, and why Easterners sometimes seem exaggerated in their political correctness and generally a bit fluff-headed to Albertans. It explains how Albertan “conservatism” has survived repeated waves of inward migration. It may even help explain how a “conservative” governing party has been able to adapt and survive in power for 41 years, annihilating its own old guard without remorse whenever the times seemed propitious.

And it explains how Ralph Klein could take so many ruthless political actions, actions that sometimes had large numbers of genuine, identifiable victims, and keep on winning elections. As Alberta mourns Ralph, we will hear talk of Klein’s “plain-spokenness” and his “no-B.S.” attitude. If it were that simple, any high-school dropout could be a successful head of government, couldn’t he? When we call somebody “plain-spoken” we refer to an active propensity to speak truth even when it will offend. This is not always a virtue; nobody but a sociopath would tell the truth to everybody all the time in any circumstance. But Klein had a native Albertan’s sense of the appropriate balance.

The canonical example is, of course, “Eastern creeps and bums.” These are the first words anybody outside Alberta will think of when they see the name Ralph Klein in the headlines one more time. They might as well get to work chiseling it into the headstone. Klein made the famous remarks as mayor of Calgary in January 1982 at a meeting of the Calgary Newcomers’ Club, pointing out in the midst of a housing crisis and a crime wave that 70% of his city’s convenience-store thefts and 95% of its bank robberies were being perpetrated by criminals from outside Alberta, with Quebeckers, in particular, overrepresented.

The source of his figures was the provincial government, and they were acknowledged to be accurate. (Peter Lougheed, who was premier in 1982, would call Klein’s remark “stupid” in an interview many years later, but admitted “We were the place that people from all across Canada were going to in those boom times…we really did get the creeps and bums.”) Calgary, at that moment, really was being beset by lowlifes from Eastern Canada—low-skilled migrants without jobs waiting for them, migrants whose arrival was being facilitated by provincially funded hostels and shelters. Is “bum” really too intense a word for a bank robber?

Klein’s image has become so distorted over the years that you will now find people who believe he was saying that all Easterners are criminals. (The dumber newspapers now routinely attribute the “Let the Eastern Bastards freeze in the dark” bumper sticker of the early 1970s to Klein; somewhere, someone is making that error as I write this.) But Klein explained very carefully what he meant at the time, and the explanation was very widely read and broadcasted—along with evidence of the gigantic wave of support he received from Calgarians for the comments.

He did not offend Easterners because what he said was mistaken or obscene, and nobody in Eastern Canada could possibly have taken the comment personally. (Easterners in the East weren’t the subject!) Klein offended by speaking truth in a manner appropriate to his time and place, and he was essentially overheard by another audience obeying different, irreconcilable speech rules. That was Ralph. He may not be loved outside Alberta, and few may weep and wail for him even within it. But his legacy looks more impressive with every week of government crisis and bungling that passes in his wake.

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