Canada

Ralph Rolls On

Practising politics their way, Albertans return the Tories to single-party rule

Brian Bergman March 26 2001
Canada

Ralph Rolls On

Practising politics their way, Albertans return the Tories to single-party rule

Brian Bergman March 26 2001

Ralph Rolls On

Canada

Brian Bergman

Practising politics their way, Albertans return the Tories to single-party rule

When Alberta Premier Ralph Klein called a provincial election last month, Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell responded with a yawn. “The suspense is so slight,” wrote Bell, “it's like covering a campaign in North Korea.” Just so. Barely 20 minutes after the polls closed on election night last week, media outlets declared that Klein, 58, had won his third straight majority government, extending the winning streak of the provinces Progressive Conservative party to nine consecutive elections over a span of 30 years. Most impressive of all was the scale of Kleins victory: the Tories captured 74 seats, 11 more than in 1997. That reduced the Liberals to a paltry seven seats from 15, while the NDP hung onto the two it had going into the election. After more than a decade during which the provincial legislature, by Alberta standards, included a healthy opposition presence, one-party rule was once again the order of the day.

“Welcome,” as the premier himself put it, “to Ralphs world.”

Kleins victory was, of course, very much in the Alberta mould. In the provinces 95-year history, there have been only four changes of government. And in the case of the long-running Social Credit regime (1935-1971) and the Conservatives, the governing party has usually enjoyed lopsided majorities. “Alberta is the only jurisdiction in Canada where there isn’t a strong tradition of opposition,” says University of Calgary political scientist David Taras. “In most places, people feel, yes, there should be someone to ask tough questions of the government, there should be greater debate. It’s a very different way of doing politics.”

The Klein stampede ran over everything in its way, including Alberta Liberal Leader Nancy MacBeth, who lost her seat in the riding of Edmonton-McClung and, three days later, announced she was leaving provincial politics. On the same day, Klein rushed to put an old stamp on his new government, reappointing all 16 cabinet ministers who ran for re-election, while boosting the overall size of his cabinet to 24 from 20.

As Klein fashioned a cabinet, political observers puzzled over why many Albertans appear content to live in a virtual oneparty state. Some suggested it is simply a case of good, honest government reaping its just reward. Others pointed to Alberta’s

frequendy strained relations with Ottawa, most notably over Pierre Trudeau’s 1980 National Energy Program. “There’s a strong populist streak here,” says University of Alberta political scientist Linda Trimble, “and one of the key elements of populism is banding together to fight an external enemy. In Alberta, that enemy is Liberal governments in Ottawa.”

For an Alberta premier, Klein did remarkably little Ottawabashing during the recent election campaign. True, he took every opportunity to try to link the provincial Liberal party to what he termed “their Liberal cousins” in Ottawa. And yes, the right-wing Calgary-based National Citizens’ Coalition took out ads urging voters to reject the Alberta Liberals as a way of “sending a message” to Jean Chrétiens government. But both appeals seemed a bit overwrought given that MacBeth was formerly aTory cabinet minister who lost that party’s leadership contest to Klein in 1992. Far from invoking Chrétien Liberalism, one of MacBeth’s most pervasive campaign ads harkened back to her days working for aTory icon, former premier Peter Lougheed.

All the same, there is a lingering unease among many Albertans that the provinces prosperity—including a record $7billion budget surplus this fiscal year—is again making it a target of envy in the rest of the country. “Alberta is becoming very wealthy,” notes Taras, “and there’s a sense of having to defend that wealth.” Klein, he adds, has already established his credentials as a strong Alberta advocate. “Ralph Klein is not a guy you want to push around. If you tread on his turf, he will fight back.”

Klein’s sweeping victory was all the more impressive because it followed perhaps his toughest year in politics. Last spring, he faced a series of angry public protests over Bill 11, legislation enabling private medical clinics to perform surgeries requiring overnight stays. Opinion polls showed a majority of Albertans opposed to what many saw as a nod towards two-tier medicare. Klein pushed the bill through the legislature anyway. More recently, the premier came under intense fire over his government’s deregulation of the utility industry as of Jan. 1. Critics blamed the move for saddling consumers with skyrocketing electricity rates. Klein responded with

$2.3-billion worth of short-term electricity rebates as well as a further $1.8 billion to help offset home-heating costs over the winter months due to high natural gas prices.

MacBeth made the bungled deregulation effort the centrepiece of her election campaign. But it failed to stick to the premier. Klein reminded voters that, after assuming power in 1992, he made the tough spending cuts needed to slay a $2.6-billion deficit he inherited from former Tory premier Don Getty. Now, Alberta is just two years away from being the first province to eliminate its accumulated debt.

So if there were choppy waters ahead on the electricity front, Klein argued, he was the person to navigate them.

The message took, even in such previously hostile territory as Edmonton, which had voted solidly Liberal in the last two provincial elections. This time, the Tories captured 11 of the seats in the capital city, leaving the other eight to the Liberals and NDE But even as Klein cruises into his third term, political observers warn of possible potholes ahead. One big one, says Trimble, will appear if, as expected, electricity rates remain high after the rebates end later this year. “Even with these huge surpluses,” she says, “they can’t afford to spend $4 billion a year on rebates, especially when people are still clamouring about classroom sizes and hospital waiting lists.” Besides, adds Trimble, “ideologically, rebates aren’t what this government is about. The free market is supposed to be next to God.” Taras points to another potential enemy: hubris. “When you have so much power, the danger is you think you don’t have to answer to anyone,” he says. “The worst thing is if he’s seen as acting like King Ralph.”

Such pretensions would be at odds with the common man image Klein so carefully cultivates. The son of a professional wresder, he grew up in the working-class Calgary neighbourhood of Tuxedo Park and is Canadas best-known high-school dropout (although media reports often conveniently neglect to mention that he went back to school and became a business college principal). While later working as a television reporter, Klein decided in 1980, as a lark, to run for mayor of Calgary. To his own astonishment he won, and went on to even bigger victories in two later civic elections. Before jumping to provincial politics, he hosted the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, an event longtime Klein sidekick and adviser Rod Love recalls as “the best time we ever had.”

The political saga may be far from over. Last week, Klein reaffirmed his desire to be premier when Alberta celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2005, an ambition that would seem to require sticking around for yet another election. And so, for the foreseeable future, Albertans live in Ralph’s world—a shameless boast on his part, but one he has doubdess earned. EH