Stockwell Day: Ralph Klein was 'genuine,' kept his word

Stockwell Day, who served in former Alberta premier Ralph Klein's cabinet, remembers the man he describes as 'just Ralph.'
Then Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day greets Alberta Premier Ralph Klein at a fundraising dinner in Edmonton in 2000. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Ralph Klein owed me nothing.

When he ran for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party in 1993, I supported another worthy candidate. For that effort, I fully expected to be overlooked in his selection of ministers for his new cabinet.

I will always remember his phone call two days before the new cabinet was to be announced.

He had just won the biggest battle of his career so far. He was now numero uno in Alberta. He had won the right to call the shots. He didn't have to concern himself with an also-ran like me.

As a matter of fact, before he became premier, he was a freshly minted minister in Don Getty's cabinet and I was the whip. On more than one occasion, I had called him or his unruly executive assistant, a guy named Rod Love, to exercise my authority and express my displeasure regarding his tardy arrival to morning cabinet meetings.

Now the shoe was surely on the other foot. I fully expected this surprise call would be a terse "thank you" for my previous services along with instructions to make way for the new whip.

His tone was neither triumphant nor dismissive. It was something I can only categorize as "just Ralph." Something I would become accustomed to in the years ahead — earthy, genuine, human.

"Hey Stock, how's it going?" he asked, as if he meant it.

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I responded to his sincerity with a touch of caution. "Fine, Premier, thank you."

His next line was vintage Ralph — always catching the recipient off guard with his transparent vulnerability.

"Stock, I need your help," he said, without a flicker of pretense. "I would like you to be in cabinet as my minister of labour." For me, the rest was history.

For Ralph, it was just another unassuming encounter with a fellow traveller on the road called Life. For the next seven years, I would be witness to untold examples of those moments of contact between the man they called King Ralph and those who willingly committed themselves as his cheerful subjects — personal, individual moments that thousands of us now recall with crystal clarity.

You know, those times when we say to ourselves, "Why can't I be more like that?"

Don't get me wrong — like all of us, the man had his faults. The difference was, Ralph didn't try to hide his. Ralph was Ralph. That endearing quality allowed him to do and say things that mere mortals could never get away with.

Certainly, many of his unforgettable quips and comments will live on in posterity. Many columnists, I'm sure, will recall the lines that shocked and sometimes infuriated.

I recall with fondness some of his simple observations, which were profound enough to drive seismic policy decisions, and that would alter how politics was done.

On taxation, when I was Alberta’s treasurer (minister of finance) and oil prices were below $18 a barrel: "Stock, any politician can raise taxes, it's a no-brainer. We have to give people a break. The only way taxes are going is down."

On media, when we would whine in caucus about journalists: "Hey people, I used to be one of them. Get used to it, and never forget the three C's that guide them: Chaos, Controversy and Confusion. Now let's get back to work."

On staying the course if you believed the cause was right: "Whatever you do, don't blink."

On Albertans: "The greatest people in the greatest province in the greatest country on Earth."

On a cold afternoon on the balcony at Government House, when he advised me in private that a dear friend of his would have to be asked to leave cabinet. On that occasion, no words from Ralph, just tears running down his cheeks.

On his beautiful and stalwart wife, Colleen, after some unfair media comment about her, with fire in his eyes: "Attacking me is one thing — that's life in politics. But when they touch my family, they cross the line."

On why Alberta's aboriginal chiefs trusted him: "I dunno, I guess it's because I keep my word."

On the billboards that started (and ended) his successful 1997 election campaign was a simple line that should speak to all of us, especially politicians, about his legacy:

"He Kept His Word."