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1997: Alberta election debate fireworks

Albertans don't elect parties so much as anoint political dynasties. And the governments — led by some of the most colourful, popular and durable premiers in Canadian history — have tended to rule for decades. CBC Archives looks back at pivotal election campaigns in Canada's bastion of conservative populism; the glory and the gaffes, the landslides and the losers, the radio preachers and the man they just call Ralph.

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Alberta's tremendously popular Premier Ralph Klein is, for a change, on the defensive. Health care problems are mounting during what was supposed to be a cakewalk to his second majority government. People are being sent home from hospital sooner, elective surgeries have been cancelled and nurses are threatening a wildcat strike. In this CBC Television clip from a candidates' debate, Klein is under fire from all sides.

Liberal leader Grant Mitchell won't condone an illegal strike but "we can appreciate the horrible way nurses feel." Social Credit's Randy Thorsteinson urges the premier not to solve the "serious crisis" by throwing money at it. And New Democrat leader Pam Barrett hollers: "Ralph, did you negotiate in good faith when you told (nurses) to take a five-per-cent pay cut while you turned in a $1-billion surplus?" 
• The March 11, 1997, Alberta election was dubbed a "Ralph-erendum" because it tested the personal popularity of Premier Ralph Klein in the first provincial vote following extremely deep cuts by his Conservative government. The biggest election issue -- and a prime target for the cuts -- was health care. A raft of hospital closures included the dynamite demolition of Calgary General Hospital, where Klein was born.

• Klein received international attention after his 1993 majority government victory because the deeper he cut into provincial spending, the higher his public support rose. The health care cuts, however, proved to be too much. For the first time, his government's approval ratings dipped below 50 per cent. In 1994, the largest protest of Klein's government took place in Edmonton, where 15,000 people demonstrated against the conversion of acute-care Grey Nuns hospital into a community care facility.

• The voters warmed up again to Klein after he balanced the budget and began to re-invest in health care. The only potential barrier to an easy stroll to yet another resounding electoral victory were acrimonious contract negotiations with the provincial nurses' union, which threatened a spontaneous walkout during the campaign. "Then it becomes a health care election -- the bomb ticking away in the heart of the political environment here," political scientist David Taras told CBC Radio at the time.

• Soon after the debate, Klein defused the issue by striking a deal with the nurses. The voters responded by giving him a landslide -- 63 of the legislature's 83 seats, up from 51 in the previous election. The Liberals, which had 29 seats at dissolution, sunk to only 18 while the NDP rose from zero seats to two. So confident were the Tories that, three hours before the polls closed, they erected a billboard in Edmonton proclaiming: "Thank you, Alberta."

• Despite the huge win, some Tories were unhappy that, once again, Edmonton voters failed to embrace them with the same fervour as their Calgary cousins. Klein ran a low-key campaign in which he made no promises, instead trumpeting the "Alberta Advantage" of surging government revenues and low corporate taxes. The February 1997 budget had boosted spending by $900 million and still recorded a $2.6-billion surplus. Klein called the election shortly after the budget was unveiled.

• Opposition leader Grant Mitchell promised to ban video lottery terminals while raising health and education spending and keeping the provincial budget balanced. While some other Liberals campaigned on the premise that the Tories would win and voters needed to keep the Liberals strong to act as a watchdog, Mitchell steadfastly proclaimed: "The polls are wrong."

• Klein outlasted the other three leaders who were on the '97 debate stage. Randy Thorsteinson failed to win a seat in the 1997 contest and resigned from Social Credit in 1999. He became founder and leader of the Alberta Alliance party. Grant Mitchell won his seat but quit as Liberal leader in 1998. Pam Barrett, the NDP leader, also won but stunned Alberta by resigning in 2000, saying she re-evaluated her life after a near-death experience caused by anasthesia in a dentist's chair.

• Klein's near-flawless campaign performance got off to a rocky start. At the press conference announcing the election call, a reporter asked him the party's campaign slogan. Klein paused, blinked and then turned away to consult a staff member. He turned back to the cameras, laughed and said: "Building Alberta Together." The slogan ended up being: "He kept his word."
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television Special
Broadcast Date: Feb. 28, 1997
Guest(s): Pam Barrett, Ralph Klein, Grant Mitchell, Randy Thorsteinson
Reporter: Bob Chelmick
Duration: 4:40

Last updated: February 27, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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