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Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

OBITUARY

Ralph Klein, 70: The man who ruled Alberta Add to ...

To everybody’s surprise, including Mr. Klein’s, the candidate with zero political experience topped the polls after the ballots were counted on Oct. 15, 1980. It was not the last time he would defy the odds as a political force.

His first term began on a high, for Calgary was enjoying an annual growth rate of 5 per cent. Less than a month after the election he was in Europe promoting Calgary’s bid to host the 1988 Winter Olympics. In September, 1981, Calgary won the IOC vote.

Within a year, the economy was sliding downward faster than a bobsled. Still, the Olympics fast-tracked a light rail transit system into the northwest quadrant of the city, the building of a performing-arts centre and the Saddledome for the Calgary Flames hockey team – the kind of newcomers the mayor favoured – and a $3.5-billion capital works program.

By winning the mayoralty again in 1983 and 1986 with a record 90 per cent of the vote, Mr. Klein guaranteed he was still in office to preside over the games in 1988 – one of the highlights of his political life.

Provincial politics

Looking for a new challenge, Mr. Klein, nominally a Liberal, ran for the legislature in 1989 for the Progressive Conservatives in Calgary-Elbow. If he had expected to reprise his romp to victory in the mayoralty election in Calgary, he was disappointed. He won by fewer than 900 votes over Liberal candidate Gib Clark and worried that he had made a mistake in jumping from local to provincial politics. The PCs remained in government, although with a reduced majority. Premier Don Getty was defeated in his Edmonton-Whitemud riding but won a by-election in Stettler after PC Brian C. Downey obligingly vacated his seat for his leader.

Mr. Klein, who served as minister of the environment, a relatively junior role then in petroleum-rich Alberta, took on his portfolio with enthusiasm and toured the province to familiarize himself with his brief and to put a human face – his – on environmental issues. His big success was pushing an omnibus environmental package through the legislature.

By 1992, Mr. Getty was unpopular in his own party. Despite his attempts to cut spending, the budget was in deficit and he was worn out by his constitutional efforts on behalf of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

Premier Don Getty announced his intention to leave politics in September, 1992, and the process for electing a new leader was changed. Party members were allowed to vote directly for the leader, a system that favoured Mr. Klein’s salesmanship tactics and personality. He won on the second ballot by 15,000 votes over his leading rival, Nancy Betkowski (later Nancy MacBeth). Many of those Klein supporters had been signed up in the week-long gap between the first ballot – where Ms. Betkowski had triumphed over a field of candidates – and the second and final one. Mr. Getty resigned both as leader and premier in early December, 1992.

Premier of Alberta

As premier, Mr. Klein positioned himself in contrast to Mr. Getty, promising the people of Alberta that he would eliminate the more than $2.5-billion deficit, attack the provincial debt and reduce the size of government, all in a platform called the Alberta Advantage.

The master of the common touch, Mr. Klein had a knack for couching complex problems and policies in sound bites and slogans, such as “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem” or “You can’t cross a canyon in two leaps,” or “You have to hunt where the ducks are,” to gain approval for deep cuts in health care, education and social services.

In his first election as premier, in June, 1993, he led his party to a majority by winning 51 seats, to 32 for the Liberals, and wiping the New Democratic Party off the electoral map. He eliminated the deficit in 1995, two years before the deadline he had set. The drastic cuts had played a key role, but so had the economy, which had begun to turn around. Oil and gas prices were rising, corporate tax revenues more than doubled and gambling revenues from video lottery terminals were gushing.

Cutting when the government pantry was bare was one thing; how to justify fiscal prudence when the larder was overflowing was trickier. The Klein administration tried to reinvent the way it did business, fashioned on a cheaper and more efficient model, by offloading many services to the private sector, including retail liquor outlets and deregulating the electricity market. He also created a firewall around Alberta to promote a fortress mentality, to deflect opposition from Ottawa and to focus communications messages through the Public Affairs Bureau, or the Ministry of Truth, as some critics, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, dubbed it.

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