Ralph Klein: Alberta's populist premier
Last Updated Se, 2006 September 12, 2006
Ralph Klein (CBC)
Ralph Klein was Calgary's secret until Jan. 7, 1982 – two years after he was elected mayor of a city where a booming oil and gas industry was fuelling explosive growth.
Recession had gripped most of the country and more than 2,500 people a month were flocking to Alberta in hopes of finding work. That was putting pressure on the housing market in Calgary. And crime rates were rising – 70 per cent of convenience store robberies and 95 per cent of bank robberies were blamed on new migrants to the city.
At a dinner, Klein tells a group of newcomers that his city does not welcome "bums" and he'll protect Calgarians from "a lot of creeps" looking for work. His speech wasn't taped, but a reporter in the crowd took notes and wrote about the comments in the Calgary Herald.
Klein denied he used the word "bum." He said the words he used were "kick ass and get them out of town."
"If some bank robber from someplace else complains that maybe he was roughed up by a police officer, I'm not going to get too worked up," he later told CBC News.
Klein's comments created a furor in eastern Canada prompting another outspoken politician – Mel Lastman, who would later become mayor of Toronto – to call Klein a "bum" who wouldn't make it as "an alderman or a school trustee here."
But Klein's comments resonated at home. His down-home off-the-cuff style fuelled his popularity. Klein portrayed himself as a regular guy and a political outsider, the kind of politician you could sit down and have a drink with.
In 1980, Klein used his position as the city hall reporter for a television station as a springboard to the mayor's job. He was easily re-elected in 1982 and 1986 – and ran one of his campaigns from the St Louis Hotel and Bar. The owner had special mugs made up which he dubbed Klein steins.
Klein's love of drink was legendary. Later, as premier, he admitted to consuming the equivalent of a bottle of wine a day and sometimes drinking during office hours to help him get over severe hangovers.
His bouts with drink never cost him politically. In December 2001, Klein showed up at a homeless shelter while on his way home from a party. He got into a heated argument with a homeless man about why he didn't have a job. Shelter workers say Klein threw a handful of money on the floor before his driver hustled him out. Two days after that story surfaced, Klein called a news conference to say he had quit drinking. His popularity remained strong.
Klein's personal popularity has benefited from a bit of luck as well. In his first term as mayor of Calgary, the city was awarded the 1988 Winter Olympics, helping to further boost an already robust economy. And, unlike Montreal, the Calgary Games was no drain on the taxpayer. They turned a profit and left in place world-class sporting venues that provide the opportunity for Canadian athletes to train at a high level.
During his third term as mayor, Klein turned his eye to provincial politics. He was elected to the provincial legislature in 1989 and was named minister of the environment under Premier Don Getty.
By the early 1990s, Alberta's economy was taking a hit. Oil and gas prices had retreated from historic highs and the province was more than $20 billion in debt. Getty's popularity was plummeting: he was accused of mismanaging the economy and squandering the oil wealth of the previous decade.
In 1992, Getty announced he was stepping aside. In December, the party chose Ralph Klein as its new leader. Again, Klein portrayed himself as an outsider who would turn things around. Still, the Conservatives lagged in the polls and it looked as though their 22-year-old dynasty was about to be unseated by the Liberals.
But Klein made changes before calling an election six months later. Among other things, he reduced the number of cabinet ministers from 26 to 17, he cut more than 2,500 of the province's 32,000 civil service jobs and got rid of pensions for all MLAs elected since 1989. He put as much distance between his leadership and that of Getty as possible.
He ditched the party's traditional colours and played up "Ralph's team" on the campaign trail. He played up the gregarious, folksy side of his personality and won over the electorate with impromptu stops at diners and coffee shops.
It worked. And it worked again in 1997 and 2001. Each time Klein's Conservatives increased the number of seats they won. Along the way, he had numerous run-ins with Ottawa, the provinces and other Conservatives.
He clashed with Ottawa over same-sex marriage legislation, at first threatening to invoke the notwithstanding clause if he had to. Later he conceded there was little he could do to prevent same-sex couples from marrying in Alberta.
He also clashed with the federal government over health care, pushing for much more private sector involvement.
Klein's relationship with Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been described as distant. He criticized Harper's Conservatives in the 2004 federal campaign and predicted in November 2005 that the Liberals would win another minority government because Canadians perceived Harper as being too far on the right. When Klein was first elected Conservative leader, he vowed to get Alberta out of debt. At the Calgary Stampede in July 2004 – just months before another election – he announced that the province had set aside enough money to retire the debt by 2005.
But something happened in the 2004 election: Klein's support fell. The Conservatives won another majority, but it was significantly reduced as the opposition parties made gains.
In the wake of that loss, Klein appointed six party members to find out why 200,000 fewer people voted Conservative in 2004 than in the previous election. A budget in the spring of 2005 also raised a few eyebrows. Klein was accused of putting the province's future wealth at risk by opening the government's purse strings. In September, he announced that every resident of Alberta would receive a $400 cheque because oil and gas revenues were boosting provincial coffers far more than anticipated.
While there were no calls within the party for Klein to ponder a life after politics, it was becoming clearer that the next phase of Alberta politics might be on the horizon. And might be a little nearer than Ralph Klein expected. After the 2004 election, Klein said he would not be leading the Conservatives into another election. With the province's economy booming, the debt paid off and little left on Klein's agenda, some mused that the premier was losing his focus – and his interest in the job.
"There has been some growing discontent with Premier Klein's policy direction over the past year or two – a sense of policy drift, a sense of not having a plan, a sense that a real opportunity is slipping through Albertans' fingers as Klein drifts towards retirement," University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young told CBC News.
On March 14, 2006, Klein announced that he would be stepping down – in October 2007. He said he would remain premier until a new leader was chosen, early in 2008. But a little over two weeks later, the party sent him a different message. He received an approval rating of 55 per cent at a party convention. He was expecting a much stronger endorsement.
Rod Love, Klein's executive assistant when he was mayor and between 1992 and 1998 when he was premier, said the vote was less a statement on Klein's popularity than it was a desire for the party to shorten the process of choosing a new leader. And that's something even Klein can't stop.
"A political party is a living thing. When the grassroots get restless and want to move on, they want to move on sooner rather than later. For 25 years, he has maintained that the people are never wrong."
Klein announced he would write officials with the Progressive Conservative party in September 2006 to ask them to conduct a leadership race. He said he would resign as soon as his replacement is chosen, leaving the timing of his departure up to the party.
In early May 2006, Klein announced he would become a fellow with the Fraser Institute when he retires from politics.
On May 18, 2006, Klein entered the provincial legislature for what was to be the final time after 13 years. He dabbed away tears as members of the legislative assembly from all parties and former politicians paid him tribute.
Liberal Leader Kevin Taft praised Klein as a role model.
"The premier has never been afraid to wear his humanity on his sleeve and I think everyone in this legislature and legislatures across Canada should learn from the premier's example," said Taft.
Deputy premier Shirley McClellan called Klein the most popular premier in Canadian history.
Klein was given a standing ovation. He said he would miss the legislature and "the ability to act up once in awhile – even though I face the chagrin and wrath of the Edmonton Journal."
The premier returned to the Alberta legislature on Aug. 31, 2006 for what he referred to as "an unexpected encore." The legislature was recalled for five days to authorize $1.3 billion in out-of-budget spending.
Klein reaffirmed his intent to resign by Sept. 16, at which time the leadership campaign will officially begin.
Born: Nov. 1, 1942
Education: High school, working on a bachelor of professional arts in communication studies through Athabasca University
Life before politics: Principal of Calgary Business College, public relations for the Red Cross and the United Way, television reporter
Political Career: Mayor of Calgary (1980-1989), MLA for Calgary-Elbow (1989-present), Premier (1992-2006)
Family: Married to Colleen; five children
- Tributes flow as Klein marks end of era
- May 19, 2006