Politics

MIDAS NO LONGER

King Ralph has lost his golden political touch, writes BRIAN BERGMAN

November 1 2004
Politics

MIDAS NO LONGER

King Ralph has lost his golden political touch, writes BRIAN BERGMAN

November 1 2004

MIDAS NO LONGER

King Ralph has lost his golden political touch, writes BRIAN BERGMAN

Politics

LET’S START with a not-so-bold prediction. Ralph Klein will handily win the provincial election he was expected to call as early as this week. But as the campaigning begins, many veteran Klein watchers are talking about something Canada’s longest-serving premier appears to have already lost: the will to govern.

Klein is coming off what is, by far, his most stumble-prone year in an otherwise charmed political career. He’s looked testy, petulant—and sometimes just plain dumb. None of this is typical. During three terms as the wildly popular mayor of Calgary and three more as Alberta’s premier, Klein displayed political acumen combined with a populist touch. As a result, he sailed through controversies that would have easily sunk lesser politicians. Lately, though, a certain

arrogance has set in, and an atmosphere of drift. Never a details guy, the 61-year-old Klein appears even more detached than usual from the nitty-gritty of governing. “There’s no sense of new ideas or energy,” says University of Calgary political scientist David Taras. “Just a premier who seems bored—and perhaps burned out.”

Consider the following days in the life of the man they call King Ralph:

■ Klein, a former television reporter, scrums more than any other major politician in Canada. Normally, he takes on all questioners, delivering pithy quotes that make headlines and lead TV newscasts. But in March, Klein abruptly ended a news conference after being repeatedly asked if

Klein, who once relished the scrum, has become more testy than pithy

U.S.-owned meat packers, rather than ordinary ranchers, had benefited most from a $400million mad cow compensation package (claims Alberta’s auditor general would later bear out). “I’ve had enough of this crap,” declared Klein, who then stormed out of the room.

■ Klein once prided himself on using commercial aircraft while travelling on government business. No more. These days, he flies what’s been dubbed “Air Ralph,” a fleet of four small planes at his government’s disposal night and day. This spring, Klein came under heavy fire from opposition politicians for a trip he took on Air Ralph to Fox Harb’r, N.S., where he mingled with business leaders at a deluxe golf resort. At a public accounts committee

hearing, Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman asked Klein to provide receipts to back his statement the Conservative party, not taxpayers, covered his $2,500 tab. “Is she calling me a liar?” asked a clearly annoyed Klein, who then repeated “You don’t believe me?” at least five times before saying he’d take the question under advisement.

■ Stephen Harper appeared headed for an upset victory in this summer’s federal election—until Klein opened his mouth. The premier told reporters that health care reforms his government planned to unveil on June 30—two days after the federal vote—might very well contravene the Canada Health Act. Paul Martin, warning darkly of a conspiracy between Klein and Harper to promote for-profit health care, demanded the premier come clean before election day. Klein initially refused, then relented.

Proposals to open private orthopaedic surgery clinics were shelved. Klein said he’d been overruled by his caucus.

■ Still smarting from being Martin’s whipping boy, Klein grudgingly attended only the first day of the three-day First Ministers’ conference on health care in September. Even at that, Klein left early from a pre-summit dinner at 24 Sussex Drive; he was later spotted gambling at a casino in Hull, Que. After three days of hard bargaining, the First Ministers agreed to a deal that will boost federal health care funding by $41 billion over the next 10 years. Back in Alberta, Klein was asked for his thoughts. Sounding positively Garboesque, the premier said, “I don’t want anything. I want to be left alone.”

Even the timing of the election campaign has many political observers scratching their heads. Klein’s current mandate doesn’t expire until the spring of 2006; in the normal course of events, he’d go to the polls sometime next year. Klein, though, wanted to get the election out of the way before Alberta marks its centennial in 2005. Many suspect the timing is primarily designed to speed up Klein’s retirement, something the premier denies. While acknowledging this will be his last election, Klein insists he plans to serve out his full fourth term.

In the meantime, he appears to be taking

a cue from Kim Campbell, who famously said elections were no time to discuss the issues. In March, the premier vowed to make bold reforms to health care the focal point of the next election campaign. Admitting that, “as a government, we’re getting lazy,” he said he was “ready to take on the Canada Health Act to achieve sustainability in the health care system.” But last month Klein told reporters any proposed reforms would have

to be put on hold because there wasn’t enough time to properly consult the public before the election. Leaving aside the fact that he controls election timing, Klein’s on-again, off-again pledge to go it alone on health care is perplexing, at best. “All the talk about greater privatization has come to nothing,” observes Taras. “There’s no real sense of what the government stands for— just a series of flip-flops.”

In the absence of a coherent vision on health care, it’s hard to see what the campaign will be about. Klein, of course, is happy to run on his fiscal record, especially since Alberta is about to become the first debt-free province in nearly four decades—and his government is now in the

NEVER a details guy, Klein appears even more detached than usual from the nitty-gritty of governing

enviable position of deciding what to do with billions of dollars in surplus cash. No doubt, Klein will also indulge in a bit of Ottawa-bashing. This week’s First Ministers’ meeting on equalization—the federal program through which “have” provinces like Alberta and Ontario subsidize the rest— couldn’t be more fortuitous. This time, Klein was eager to make the trek to Ottawa, and has already rehearsed his best lines.

“We have the constitutional authority to protect and run our resources and reap the profits and rewards,” he told a recent business luncheon in Edmonton. “And by God, Ottawa, keep your hands off.”

But it’s not as if Klein really needs an issue—or an enemy—to emerge victorious. A September Ipsos-Reid poll showed the Alberta Conservatives commanding 50 per cent support among decided voters, compared with 22 per cent for the Liberals, 13 per cent for the NDP and 10 per cent for the fledgling Alberta Alliance party. Klein’s personal approval rating stands at an impressive 65 per cent. And despite recent gaffes, almost everyone expects Klein to be back on his game as he hits the hustings.

Still, there is that nagging question of what exactly a fourth straight Klein victory might mean. Will he use it to forge ahead with a nation-leading overhaul of health care, as some conservative think tanks and editorialists are already urging him to do? Or will he be content to simply coast through the centenary celebrations on his way to an early retirement? It’s clear now that the colourful, combative Klein era is drawing to a close. How the final act plays out remains very much a mystery. lifl