Canada

KLEIN GOES FOR THREE

Flush with cash from a record surplus, Alberta’s rumpled and folksy premier calls an election

Brian Bergman February 26 2001
Canada

KLEIN GOES FOR THREE

Flush with cash from a record surplus, Alberta’s rumpled and folksy premier calls an election

Brian Bergman February 26 2001

KLEIN GOES FOR THREE

Canada

Brian Bergman

Flush with cash from a record surplus, Alberta’s rumpled and folksy premier calls an election

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ralph Klein could be spotted driving his 1977 Volkswagen Beetle into a strip mall parking lot in southwest Calgary.

Clad in blue jeans, he emerged from the car and headed into the local dry-cleaning shop, a pile of clothes slung over one shoulder. At such moments, it’s possible to glimpse what has made the 58-yearold premier one of the most successful Canadian politicians of his generation. Despite more than eight years years occupying Alberta’s highest elected office, the slightly rumpled Klein remains someone many voters can imagine sitting down with over a cool brew or two.

Contrast that with the image of Klein’s chief opponent, Liberal Leader Nancy MacBeth. Slim and carefully coiffed, MacBeth, 52, is a former provincial Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who narrowly lost the party’s 1992 leadership contest to Klein. She quit politics, only to reemerge six years later as leader of Alberta’s long-beleaguered Liberal party, which MacBeth is quick to distance from its federal counterpart. Few question MacBeth’s intelligence—or, for that matter, her political verve in taking on Klein, whom she blames for steering the Conservative party too far to the right.

But she has failed, as yet, to strike a bond with Albertans. In a provincewide poll conducted for the Calgary Flerald last fall, 62 per cent of respondents said they had “warm” feelings for Klein; only 21 per cent felt that way about MacBeth.

As much as anything, the personalities of the main party leaders may tell the tale of the March 12 provincial election Klein set in motion last week as he aims for a third victory. By some accounts, he should be in more trouble than appears to be the case. Last spring, polls showed a majority of Albertans opposed Bill 11, legislation that allowed private clinics the right to do overnight surgeries. Klein, playing against his image as a populist, rammed the bill through anyway. More recently, he has come under fire for the skyrocketing electricity prices that accompanied deregulation of the province’s power industry as of Jan. 1. Yet despite all that, polls suggest the Tories, who now

hold 64 seats, compared with 15 for the Liberals and two for the NDP, are headed for another strong majority government. “There’s an irony here,” says University of Calgary political scientist David Taras. “While people are nervous about Klein’s policies in areas like health care and electricity, they don’t link that nervousness to him. It’s almost like, ‘When Ralph finds out there’s a problem, he’ll do something about it,’ rather than, ‘It’s Ralph causing the problem.’ ” Taras, in fact, likens Klein to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who managed to skate over controversy by dint of his sunny persona. “Like Reagan, Klein doesn’t embody the government,” says Taras. “He embodies the province. There’s a kind of rough-and-ready, shoot-from-the-lip, folksy style about him that people like.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt to also have bags of money. Armed with a record $7-billion budget surplus for the current fiscal year, the Alberta Tories pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending in the weeks leading up to the election call. Among the big-ticket items: a $390-million settlement with the province’s doctors, making them among the highest paid in the country; $250 million to build two medical centres of excellence in Edmonton and Calgary; $ 193 million to develop a high-speed Internet service to every school, hospital, library and government building in the province; and $ 119 million for new school construction and upgrades to existing schools.

Most significant, Klein is doling out $4.1 billion in energy rebates over the next year to residential and industrial users to cushion the blow of high electricity and natural gas prices. He also promised to shield Albertans from high energy prices over the longer term, with details to come after the election.

While the rebate schemes might seem like political manna for the Tories, they also provide Alberta’s opposition parties with a potentially soft flank to fire upon. Most industry analysts say the way the Klein government implemented electricity deregulation directly contributed to the province’s current power-

supply shortages—and higher prices. The reason: potential investors were not given clear signals of what a deregulated market might look like, and so delayed building new capacity. Seen in this light, the electricity rebates are a short-term fix to a problem of the government’s own making, intended to get the Tories safely past the current election campaign.

That was precisely the line MacBeth took at a Calgary news conference last week, during which she unveiled her party’s plan for dealing with the deregulation controversy. MacBeth noted that Alberta has gone from having among the lowest electricity prices in Canada to the highest. “On top of that,” she said, “this government is mrning around and bribing Albertans with their own money.” The Liberal leader described the rebates as an attempt to mask a problem that won’t go away. “A BandAid won’t do,” said MacBeth. “The patient needs surgery.”

The Liberals propose a two-tier system. Households as well as small and medium-sized businesses would return to a regulated market. “These Albertans didn’t ask for deregulation,” she said. “They have nothing to gain from this disaster—they are casualties.” Large users of electricity—those consuming more than $ 1 million a year—would continue to buy electricity on a competitive, wholesale market.

The Liberal plan received mixed reviews. Dan Macnamara, executive director of the Calgary-based Industrial Power Con-

sumers and Cogenerators Association, says the proposals have some merit—at least in the short run. Macnamara, whose members consume over half of the electricity generated in Alberta, adds that, because the retail end is controlled by a small number of utility providers, a truly competitive market does not exist. “Deregulation without competition doesn’t make much sense,” he says. But some analysts warn the Liberal proposal might add more uncertainty to a marketplace that needs stability to bring on new power supplies.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Klein’s critics is making their position on such a complex issue comprehensible in the context of a fast-paced election campaign. For example, a Liberal policy background document given to reporters last week used the following sentence to describe the proposed wholesale market for large electricity users: “The current marginal price Power Pool will be replaced with a six-hour ahead bilateral wholesale trading, with scheduling and system balancing managed by the Alberta Integrated Manager.” Contrast that with Klein’s pithy reaction to the Liberal plan carried on Alberta newscasts the evening of MacBeth’s announcement: “I’m no Dr. Edison and neither is the leader of the opposition. You don’t simply snap your fingers and bring on new electricity.”

Klein went on to assure Albertans new power supplies were on the way, prices would soon drop and his government would never leave them in the dark. It was the kind of soothing sound bite that has fuelled a remarkable political career—one Albertans appear in no hurry to terminate. El