‘I run Alberta the same way I run my house. I’m obsessive about my credit rating. I’m not out to impress anybody.’
Halfway through a recent dinner at a Vancouver seaside restaurant with Ralph Klein and his wife, Colleen, I asked the Alberta premier to define his political philosophy.
He had been spouting off in all directions, offering his benediction to Roy Romanow’s deficit-cutting ways, a warning about the national debt to Jean Chrétien and a stem lecture to Jacques Parizeau, but my question puzzled him. “Now, that’s interesting,” he mused. “A political philosophy... am I liberal or conservative?”
Unable to answer his own question, he went on. “I look at politics only one way and that is it’s about people. Administering a province is, of course, totally separate from politics. My style is to ran the government the same way I run my house. Colleen and I are very frugal. We live in a three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot bungalow in Calgary’s Lakeview district, which is a normal kind of working-class neighborhood, and have a small condo in Edmonton, not in a luxury building. We’ve always operated on the premise that we pay our bills. I’m obsessive about our family’s credit rating. It’s sacred; it’s our good name. We’re not out to impress anybody.”
“We’re rich in other ways,” continued Colleen. ‘We simply operate our household on the basis of what we can afford. We pay our mortgage and every now and then we might use a credit card when we go out to dinner. But Ralph and I never live beyond our means. When I go shopping, I take my little calculator and bring along my coupons. We don’t live any differently than we expect other people to live.”
When Klein was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1989, Calgary was full of rumors that he’d bought a $500,000 home and spent another $1 million renovating it, then bought a $400,000 penthouse in Edmonton. “None of it was true, of course,” Colleen Klein emphatically points out. “That’s the old
school of politics, when people expected leaders to have such things.”
Klein is one of the country’s few populists. His idea of finding out what the people think is not to peruse the elegant droppings of some pollster’s computers, but to wander into the beer parlor at Calgary’s St. Louis Hotel. “It smells of deep-fried chicken, chips and cigarette smoke, but you find everybody there,” he says, “union leaders, the odd judge, Hutterites, cops, Croats and Serbs, even a lawyer or two. I feel at home there. But I also feel comfortable at the Petroleum Club.”
A former TV reporter and three-term Calgary mayor, Klein has spent the past 18 months reinventing Alberta society, turning the Wild Rose province into a red-hot laboratory on how to run an $11.4-billion budget and balance your books. After Alberta ran a $3.4-billion deficit in 1992-1993—Klein became premier in December, 1992—this year’s shortfall is expected to be only $655 million, half the predicted amount. His next target is to eliminate the province’s $32-billion debt. Every public-sector expenditure has been cut, right down to removing 40,000 of the usual 100,000 bulbs that light up
the legislature buildings at Christmastime.
Alberta isn’t the only province about to balance its budget, but it’s the only one that did it without raising taxes. Penalizing taxpayers, according to Klein, is “the easy, cowardly, brainless way out”; it’s the expense side of the budget that has to suffer. To emphasize his point, the Alberta premier last week promised to reimburse Albertans if Paul Martin raises taxes substantially in his next budget. “There’s plenty of room for the Feds to cut expenditures,” he told me. “They haven’t even begun to set the tone. You tell the civil service, We want to cut your salaries by five per cent, but before we do that, we’re going to do it to ourselves.’ That’s what we did in Alberta. We not only cut our salaries by five per cent, we eliminated political pensions. And it was all voluntary.”
“It’s too easy to pick other people’s pockets,” he goes on. “What offends me, and I really get emotional about this because it’s my only pension at 52 years old, is when they talk in Ottawa about taxing RRSPs. They’re sitting on their big, fat pensions and want to tax the savings of people who have worked hard all their lives. That really offends me.” Klein makes the point that while federal politicians readily admit they’re running out of borrowing power, nobody seems to have noticed that they’ve already run out of taxing power.
Despite his easy dismissal of the fact that some of Alberta’s less economically privileged citizens are suffering, the premier insists that those who truly need help are getting it. He is not against welfare, he claims. He is against welfare as a way of life. He believes that everyone “should benefit from the work experience” and is happy to spend provincial funds retraining people and upgrading their educations. “But if they’re able to work,” he warns, “and tell us that they’d rather not, that welfare is their God-given right—then I’m sorry, they’re out of here.”
When I bring up the obvious point that he is against universality, the premier appears genuinely puzzled for a moment; at first, he admits it, then denies it. ‘We have good highways, so there is universality in some things,” he says, warming up to his subject. “People expect to have good roads, right? Some things are fundamental to the taxpayer.” Subject closed.
He sounds confident, but doesn’t have that annoying edge of righteousness exhibited by Reformers who share his ideology. Whatever the final verdict on his revolution may be, Klein is a superb politician and acknowledges he’s being wooed to go federal. But he most likely will resist the temptation. “We have another three years to our mandate,” Colleen points out. “And Ralph will need another term to complete the job that he’s doing. By then, we’ll be into our 60s and probably won’t have the kind of high energy level it takes to do a good job on the federal level.
I would never hold him back, but I have no desire to go to Ottawa.”
Meanwhile, Colleen Klein sums up her husband’s ideology better than anybody else. We call it tough love,” she says, and smiles.
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