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Alberta Premier Ralph Klein jokingly shields his eyes with a pair of golf balls during a break between playing holes at his charity golf tournament in Spruce Grove, Alta., on June 4, 2003. (DARRYL DYCK/CP / Edmonton Sun)
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein jokingly shields his eyes with a pair of golf balls during a break between playing holes at his charity golf tournament in Spruce Grove, Alta., on June 4, 2003. (DARRYL DYCK/CP / Edmonton Sun)

Gary Mason: It’s hard to imagine Ralph Klein thriving in today’s political climate Add to ...

Ralph Klein was made for the era in which he dominated Alberta politics.

A pure populist with a mostly unerring instinct for what the people wanted, Mr. Klein often governed on gut instinct. And while his style may have made the province’s elites uncomfortable at times and occasionally embarrassed, it resonated with the only people he truly cared about: grassroot Albertans.

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It’s hard to imagine someone like Mr. Klein surviving in today’s environment, one in which each sentence a politician utters seems to have been focus-grouped or pre-approved by a coterie of strategists. And then there is the 24/7 social-media commentary and the prospect that every stumble, drink induced or otherwise, might get caught by someone with a smartphone who can instantly distribute it to the world.

No, Ralph Klein, or just Ralph as he was mostly known, was an Alberta original and one of the staunchest defenders of his province that it has ever seen. Nationally, that will be one of the most enduring images of the man; boasting about his province’s hard-earned economic advantage – after making it debt free – lecturing Ottawa to stay out of Alberta’s affairs. While he cared deeply for Canada, it was Wild Rose country that owned his heart.

While Mr. Klein will be remembered for many things in his home province, most Canadians will recall a unique and ebullient politician who often left his prepared script to deliver homespun wisdom and hard-nosed truths. His fellow premiers often marvelled at what Mr. Klein seemed to get away with in Alberta, the trouble, often brought on by over-imbibing, that he could talk himself out of.

But there was also a tremendous amount of respect for him, for the brutal assault on the province’s debt that he waged for which few people in his position had the stomach. It took a special kind of courage to do what Ralph Klein did. And even if you didn’t agree with his methods or ideology, you had to admire someone who stuck to his principles in the face of virulent opposition.

In that way he was different than most politicians who avoid matters that can be politically damaging even if they are hurting their province in the process.

Not everyone, of course, will remember Mr. Klein with fondness. While he had Everyman sensibilities, a connection with the working stiff, he had his Gucci loafer moments too. The most notorious being an evening in 2001 when, after too much to drink, he stumbled into a homeless shelter and got into verbal dust-up with one of the people living there. Before leaving, Mr. Klein, in a momentary and unthinking act of blind stupidity, threw money on the floor.

The incident made national headlines and publicly raised the premier’s drinking as a serious issue. Mr. Klein seemed genuinely devastated by his conduct and offered an emotional apology and the promise he would seek help for his problem. And while there was never another booze-induced scandal of that sort again, it wasn’t the last time that the premier would have a few too many drinks.

But to many, that made Mr. Klein who he was; someone with the same problems that might have afflicted Martha and Henry, the fictitious couple the premier made famous by constantly referencing their needs and wishes whenever he was defending a budget or opening some new hospital or school. While Mr. Klein wasn’t the first politician to conjure up the image of some make-believe husband and wife that his policies were designed for, he was one of the few you believed when he said it.

The premier would never be mistaken as a policy wonk. He was not interested in the fine details of an issue, but rather its broad implications. Despite serving 14 years as premier from 1992 to 2006, Mr. Klein did not compile a fine record of public policy achievements and was certainly not known for considering issues beyond the short-term. His single-minded focus on eliminating the province’s debt, while not introducing a sales tax, came at a high cost. Important action on other fronts, health care being just one, was effectively stalled.

Mr. Klein will be remembered in Calgary, meantime, for his three-term stint as mayor. It was a period in which he cut his teeth as a politician, honed the working-class intuitions that he would later take to the legislature in Edmonton. Today, the Saddledome and other edifices linked to the 1988 Winter Olympics that he presided over as mayor, stand as monuments to his time in office.

Ralph Klein will go down as one of the most successful politicians in Alberta’s history. One who today is no doubt being toasted by the regular folk to whom he most related.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that the Calgary Tower was constructed during Ralph Klein's time in office. The error has been corrected.

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