Ralph Klein, a high school dropout who parlayed a following as a television personality into a formidable political career, including a 14-year stretch as Alberta premier, died early Friday. He was 70.
Mr. Klein suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and frontotemporal dementia, and spent his last years in a full-time care facility. His death came four months after his wife Colleen tearfully accepted the Order of Canada and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal on his behalf at a special ceremony in November, 2012.
Posing for photographs with Governor-General David Johnston, she made sure everybody remembered her ailing husband from his heyday. With a mischievous smile, she pulled back the lapel of her blazer to flash a campaign button emblazoned with her husband’s grinning face from 1992, the year he won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and became Alberta’s 12th premier.
Folksy, colourful, outspoken, Mr. Klein’s reputation stretched beyond provincial and even national boundaries. When he became premier in 1992, Alberta had the highest deficit per capita in the country. During his tenure, he led four successive majority governments and wiped out both the deficit and the provincial debt – without raising taxes. He accomplished that feat by persuading voters to accept massive cuts – more than 20 per cent – in public spending. Call it the Klein Revolution, Ralphonomics, or the Alberta Advantage, as Mr. Klein dubbed his austerity campaign, the man known as King Ralph proved he could cut.
Late in his tenure, Mr. Klein also learned to spend, issuing a $400 prosperity cheque, dubbed “Ralph bucks” to Albertans in 2006.
He also helped kick-start the explosive growth in the oil sands. Mr. Klein and the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien set the stage for oil sands development by creating major investment incentives. The federal government reformed and streamlined the tax writeoffs it allowed for oil sands firms, while Mr. Klein’s government scrapped a welter of one-off royalty deals to create a generic royalty – one that demanded only token payments in the first years of the megaprojects.
“Alberta and Canada have lost a unique and significant leader,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement Friday. “While Ralph’s beliefs about the role of government and fiscal responsibility were once considered radical, it is perhaps his greatest legacy that these ideas are now widely embraced across the political spectrum.”
A pragmatist rather than an ideologue, Mr. Klein was often dismissed and under-rated by press and pundits, but few were better at connecting with the electorate. He had an uncanny ability to convince voters to accept smaller, meaner government and to forgive him when he blundered. His frequent stumbles, usually fuelled by drink and a motor mouth, were followed by tearful apologies rather than denials and stonewalling. This unaffected, just-folks manner aroused affection rather than derision in most Albertans. Re-elected as an MLA in his Calgary-Elbow constituency four times, he always ran about 20 points ahead of his party in popularity.
Mr. Klein served three consecutive terms as an immensely popular mayor of Calgary and presided over the 1988 Winter Olympics before becoming Alberta premier. The defining moment for his political style was set in the early 1980s and, as so often happened in subsequent years, it began with an inebriated Mr. Klein shooting from the lip. He had barely draped the chain of office around his neck as mayor of Calgary in 1980 when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government announced the National Energy Program. The NEP effectively imposed revenue-sharing burdens on oil and gas revenues in Alberta to ameliorate the effects of higher gas prices in other parts of the country. Animosity registered deep and fast in the province, giving rise to the infamous bumper sticker: “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”
That was the atmosphere when Mr. Klein agreed to speak at an evening event in January, 1982, welcoming newcomers to his city, many of them from east of the Manitoba border. Already well oiled, Mr. Klein lashed out at the “creeps” who arrived without skills or resources, bumped up Calgary’s welfare rolls, stretched unemployment lines and boosted crime rates.
“Stay away, Bums Told,” blared a headline in the Calgary Herald the next morning, inciting angry responses from coast to coast and pushing Rod Love, the mayor’s executive assistant, into damage control. Instead of pressuring the mayor to grovel – an unlikely prospect – he put Mr. Klein on a media and speaking tour of Ontario and Quebec to explain how Calgary was being hurt by economic problems elsewhere.