Canada

Klein's cakewalk

What will Alberta's victorious Tories do for an encore?

MARY NEMETH March 24 1997
Canada

Klein's cakewalk

What will Alberta's victorious Tories do for an encore?

MARY NEMETH March 24 1997

Klein's cakewalk

Canada

What will Alberta's victorious Tories do for an encore?

MARY NEMETH

It was a lesson in the new politics of fiscal conservatism: governments can cut deep and fast—and still go on to post massive electoral victories. Witness Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s romp at the ballot box last week as his Tories captured 63 of 83 seats in the legislature. It helped, of course, that Klein is a personable populist and was able to sell his tough fiscal agenda to the province. It helped even more that the tides of economic fortune—the price of crude oil in particular—flowed in the government’s favor. With that, Alberta’s Tories were able to offer the electorate quick gratification in the form of a $2.2-billion budgetary surplus this past year alone. Still, it was deficit-cutting that won the day—to the chagrin of the opposition. “I think a lot of people just came to the conclusion that the Klein government had done a pretty good job in terms of balancing the budget,” said downcast Liberal MLA Frank Bruseker on election eve, as incoming poll results made it clear that he was about to lose his seat in Calgary North West. “A lot of people up in this area just said they didn’t care that the cuts had hurt—they felt they were prepared to pay the price.” Klein’s Conservatives painted most of Alberta Tory blue on

March 11, except for one Liberal seat in Calgary, one in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge, and 16 Liberal and two New Democrat seats in the Edmonton area. In fact, although they won some ridings on the capital’s periphery, the Tories took only two seats in the city proper, and so failed to decimate the opposition, as some observers had predicted. But that was the only weakness in an otherwise masterful political performance. Despite implementing one of the toughest fiscal regimens ever in Canada—the Tories reduced government expenditures by 20 per cent, cut thousands of positions from the civil service, closed hospitals and slashed welfare rolls—they won 12 more seats than they did in the June, 1993, election, and increased their share of the popular vote by almost seven points to 51.2 per cçnt.

Such a resounding victory for a fellow budget-cutter is likely to comfort Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as he contemplates his own run at the polls, expected in June. “There’s certainly nothing in the election outcome,” says University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins, “that would make the Prime Minister reconsider plans for an early election.” But what impact Klein may have on other federal strategies is far from certain. There has been unconfirmed speculation that he might join federal Conservative Leader

Jean Charest in endorsing distinct society status for Quebec. And last week, one high-ranking federal official who requested anonymity said that while Klein has not been directly approached on the issue, his support for any constitutional recognition of Quebec could be critical because of his popularity among fellow premiers and his high profile in Western Canada—where much of the resistance to distinct society is rooted.

That means Klein will almost certainly face pressure at some point in his new term to board the federal unity train. Reform Leader Preston Manning, who opposes distinct society status, sought to force Klein’s hand during the provincial campaign, calling on him to clarify his position. Klein brushed him off, saying distinct society was not on his agenda. He has also promised to hold a referendum before Alberta approves any constitutional change. And at least some analysts suggest that Klein would have to pay a substantial political price at home should he ever champion the distinct society cause. “I’m sure that there are members of both the Liberals and Conservatives who are salivating at the prospect of trying to move Ralph Klein’s political capital onto their squares—but it won’t work,” argues University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper. “He would very quickly lose a great deal of support that he has.”

Klein, however, seems to be leaving his options open—despite his quick dismissal of Manning’s manoeuvring.

He has said that he can support Quebec’s uniqueness, so long as such a recognition does not confer special powers or status on the province. And when asked about the issue last week,

: the premier seemed to choose his ! words carefully. “It’s not on my agenda ! at this particular time,” he said.

Last week, though, attention in Alberta was focused on Klein’s domestic agenda. In 1993, he received a clear mandate to cut the deficit. His current campaign was run largely on the Tories’ success in meeting that challenge. “He kept his word,” proclaimed large billboards featuring Klein in a denim shirt, “and he will again.” But as the Klein government now embarks on a second term, what is that word? “I’m still very puzzled as to what to expect,” says Calgary’s Gibbins. ‘To me, all the government has really put in place is a stay-the-course philosophy in terms of managing expenditures—which I think makes a lot of sense.” But as the province emerges from the deficit-fighting mode, Gibbins adds, there does not seem to be any clear signal as to how the government will “grapple with the politics of prosperity.”

Klein has said that his party’s plan for the future was laid out in the budget the Tories tabled on Feb. 11, the day the premier called the election. That document promised modest spending increases in areas like education, health and seniors’ programs, and set a goal of 155,000 new jobs to be created in the province by December, 2000. The premier has also announced plans for a summit in late May at which business, labor and community leaders will hammer out strategies for handling the pressures of growth—such as demands for increased wages. “The mandate now,” Klein said the day after the election, “is to really sustain the household, to make sure that there is a comfortable lifestyle, a good lifestyle, for all Albertans.” But he conceded that he did not have all the details. “You ask me specifically how we’re going to do that in each and every case, I don’t know,” said Klein.

Some of his opponents charged that the Tories will actually use their new majority to press forward with further cuts. “It’s going to be a more arrogant government,” maintained Howard Swanson, the retired radiologist and former Tory who ran as the Liberal candidate in Klein’s home riding of Calgary Elbow—collecting a surprisingly strong 5,176 votes to Klein’s 8,235. Swanson claimed that the Tories would “make further cuts in health and education.” But Klein insisted that those cuts are over—and that money saved because of lower interest costs on a shrink-

ing provincial debt will be channelled into those and other high-priority areas.

In fact, Klein is certain to face ever-increasing demands, especially from provincial government employees and other public sector workers who took wage rollbacks of about five per cent during the government’s budget slashing. On March 5, just six days before Albertans went to the polls, the province’s regional health authorities reached a deal that gave registered nurses wage increases of more than seven per cent over two years in addition to staffing concessions. Labor leaders have said that the deal—which came after nurses threatened to strike—has set a precedent for impending contract talks with provincial government employees, as well as ongoing negotiations between teachers and local school boards. “All of us sacrificed five per cent to help eliminate the deficit,” said Alberta Teachers’ Association president Bauni Mackay. “Our position now is that all of us must get it back.”

In the legislature, meanwhile, Klein will be facing a reduced opposition. Among the newcomers will be two New Democrat MLAs from a party that was frozen out in the 1993 election. Leader Pam Barrett failed in her bid to replace the liberals as the opposition. But the presence of the political firebrand in the legislature is sure to ignite some lively debate.

The real surprise of the election, however, was that the Liberals managed to hold on to 18 ridings. Although that is 14 fewer than they won in 1993, it is considered a decent showing—given that Alberta politics have often been monolithic, with the opposition frequently reduced to a handful of members. And the Grits actually won 32.7 per cent of the popular vote, up from the 26 per cent support they had in the latest mid-campaign opinion poll—enough, some analysts suggested last week, to ensure that Grant Mitchell will be free to stay on as Liberal leader if he so chooses. The flip side of that limited Liberal success is the disappointment the Tories expressed at failing to make deeper inroads in the capital, despite aggressive campaigning. “I regret that we did not show a little bit better in the city of Edmonton,” Klein said on election night. But with 63 seats, he could still revel in a resounding triumph for the Tories—and for the politics of balanced budgeting.

With JOHN DeMONT in Ottawa and DALE EISLER in Calgary