OBITUARY

Ralph Klein, 70: The man who ruled Alberta

The Globe and Mail

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein leaving a meeting of the first ministers on equity in Ottawa, Oct. 26, 2004. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/CP)

Ralph Klein, a high school dropout who parlayed a following as a television personality into a formidable political career, including a 14-year stretch as Alberta premier, died early Friday. He was 70.

Mr. Klein suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and frontotemporal dementia, and spent his last years in a full-time care facility. His death came four months after his wife Colleen tearfully accepted the Order of Canada and a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal on his behalf at a special ceremony in November, 2012.

Story continues below ad

Posing for photographs with Governor-General David Johnston, she made sure everybody remembered her ailing husband from his heyday. With a mischievous smile, she pulled back the lapel of her blazer to flash a campaign button emblazoned with her husband’s grinning face from 1992, the year he won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and became Alberta’s 12th premier.

Folksy, colourful, outspoken, Mr. Klein’s reputation stretched beyond provincial and even national boundaries. When he became premier in 1992, Alberta had the highest deficit per capita in the country. During his tenure, he led four successive majority governments and wiped out both the deficit and the provincial debt – without raising taxes. He accomplished that feat by persuading voters to accept massive cuts – more than 20 per cent – in public spending. Call it the Klein Revolution, Ralphonomics, or the Alberta Advantage, as Mr. Klein dubbed his austerity campaign, the man known as King Ralph proved he could cut.

Late in his tenure, Mr. Klein also learned to spend, issuing a $400 prosperity cheque, dubbed “Ralph bucks” to Albertans in 2006.

He also helped kick-start the explosive growth in the oil sands. Mr. Klein and the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien set the stage for oil sands development by creating major investment incentives. The federal government reformed and streamlined the tax writeoffs it allowed for oil sands firms, while Mr. Klein’s government scrapped a welter of one-off royalty deals to create a generic royalty – one that demanded only token payments in the first years of the megaprojects.

“Alberta and Canada have lost a unique and significant leader,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement Friday. “While Ralph’s beliefs about the role of government and fiscal responsibility were once considered radical, it is perhaps his greatest legacy that these ideas are now widely embraced across the political spectrum.”

A pragmatist rather than an ideologue, Mr. Klein was often dismissed and under-rated by press and pundits, but few were better at connecting with the electorate. He had an uncanny ability to convince voters to accept smaller, meaner government and to forgive him when he blundered. His frequent stumbles, usually fuelled by drink and a motor mouth, were followed by tearful apologies rather than denials and stonewalling. This unaffected, just-folks manner aroused affection rather than derision in most Albertans. Re-elected as an MLA in his Calgary-Elbow constituency four times, he always ran about 20 points ahead of his party in popularity.

Political style

Mr. Klein served three consecutive terms as an immensely popular mayor of Calgary and presided over the 1988 Winter Olympics before becoming Alberta premier. The defining moment for his political style was set in the early 1980s and, as so often happened in subsequent years, it began with an inebriated Mr. Klein shooting from the lip. He had barely draped the chain of office around his neck as mayor of Calgary in 1980 when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government announced the National Energy Program. The NEP effectively imposed revenue-sharing burdens on oil and gas revenues in Alberta to ameliorate the effects of higher gas prices in other parts of the country. Animosity registered deep and fast in the province, giving rise to the infamous bumper sticker: “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”

That was the atmosphere when Mr. Klein agreed to speak at an evening event in January, 1982, welcoming newcomers to his city, many of them from east of the Manitoba border. Already well oiled, Mr. Klein lashed out at the “creeps” who arrived without skills or resources, bumped up Calgary’s welfare rolls, stretched unemployment lines and boosted crime rates.

“Stay away, Bums Told,” blared a headline in the Calgary Herald the next morning, inciting angry responses from coast to coast and pushing Rod Love, the mayor’s executive assistant, into damage control. Instead of pressuring the mayor to grovel – an unlikely prospect – he put Mr. Klein on a media and speaking tour of Ontario and Quebec to explain how Calgary was being hurt by economic problems elsewhere.

Condemnation gave way to grudging admiration for “a personable mayor who delivered the straight goods in the face of furious opposition,” according to Klein biographer Don Martin in King Ralph: The Political Life and Success of Ralph Klein.

As for Mr. Love, the bums and creeps tour remained one of his favourite memories of working with his boss. “That was the moment that the real Ralph Klein emerged,” he told the Canadian Press in 2011.

Taking his “telling it like it is” message directly to the people became Mr. Klein’s trademark as premier. Whenever he had a tough situation to turn around, or an election campaign to wage, he would tool around the province with his wife Colleen in his RV, just talking to folks.

Journalist and policy analyst Rich Vivone says Mr. Klein “had the trust and popularity to do almost anything he wanted and survive,” but he lacked the ability to turn his populism into public policy. His “fiscal achievements early in his career were significant,” writes Mr. Vivone in Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar , but he “utterly failed at health reform and economic diversification” and he did “little for culture, recreation or the arts.”

Political analyst David Taras of Mount Royal University concurs. There is a huge distinction, he says, between Mr. Klein’s impact as a politican and the poverty of his public policy initiatives. “In terms of political victories, he is almost beyond comparison in Canada. He won his political battles, he crushed his opposition, he himself was good for probably 2,000 votes in every riding in the province. He was a populist, he had an intrinsic feel for where the political centre was and for the political mood of the province,” says Prof. Taras, comparing Mr. Klein’s political agility to a “cat on a hot tin roof.” He almost always “knew exactly where to land.” If he was on the wrong side of public opinion, he would do a sophisticated gymnastic manoeuvre or even a simple somersault, apologize and change direction.

But the policy side was dismal, says Prof. Taras, describing Mr. Klein as a politician without “nuance,” who couldn’t look beyond the immediate target to a long-term goal and who was a “great failure” as a visionary. So, in terms of “a long-term legacy, of being a builder and an investor in the future, all of those are wanting.”

The longer he was in office, the larger were his policy faults, says Prof. Taras. A key one was paying down the provincial debt in the midst of a booming economy in 2004, especially since “the interest charges didn’t amount to very much” by then. “All of his political capital was spent on eliminating the fiscal debt and declaring victory, but he did so at the expense of hospitals, roads, light rail transit lines, and investing in better health-care services or education.”

And those are some of the deficits his province and his party are confronting today.

Early life

Ralph Philip Klein was born on Nov. 1, 1942 in Calgary, the elder son of Philip Andrew Klein and Florence Harper. His paternal grandfather, Andrew Klein, had emigrated from Germany by way of London and New York and staked a claim near Rocky Mountain House in 1906, a year after Alberta joined Confederation. He quickly imported and married his English girlfriend. They had four children, including a son who became Ralph Klein’s father.

Philip Klein was a drifter and his wife an alcoholic. After they divorced, Ralph was raised mostly by his maternal grandparents in a working-class neighbourhood in Tuxedo Park in the northern part of the city. School bored him and, after finishing Grade 10 at Crescent Heights High School, he dropped out and joined the RCAF.

Quickly realizing he had made a serious mistake, Mr. Klein became so depressed that he qualified for a medical discharge. As a veteran he was given free tuition and a monthly stipend for vocational training at Calgary Business College. There, Mr. Klein became an avid student, excelling in accounting and commercial law.

When he graduated, the college offered him a teaching position. He married Hilda May Hepner on April 29, 1961, seven months before their son Bradley was born. They had a daughter, Angela, four years later.

A natural at working a room, Mr. Klein did well at Calgary Business College, quickly being promoted to principal, but quit for a higher-paying job in public relations for the Canadian Red Cross; a few years later he moved to a communications job at the United Way of Calgary.

Journalism career

A man who drank as hard as he smoked, Mr. Klein loved the social aspects of public relations in the early 1960s – hanging out at the press club, trading sources with journalists and honing the skills that he would later use to advantage as a politician. His carousing had a sour effect on his marriage, but it did the opposite for his career.

By 1968, Mr. Klein had become a reporter at Calgary radio station CFCN. Two years later, he had moved in front of the station’s television cameras as a weatherman, quickly mastering the craft of scribbling numbers backward on a glass weather map. Before long he netted a plum assignment, covering city council.

After a stormy marriage, Mr. Klein and his wife Hilda divorced in 1972. Three months later he married Colleen Hamilton, a divorcee with two daughters, Christine and Lisa. They subsequently had a child together, Teresa, and despite the usual sorts of marital turmoil, they remained a devoted couple for more than 40 years.

As a journalist, Mr. Klein liked to say that “there are no stories in the newsroom.” Among the best ones he found out on the road was a documentary he made in 1977 on the Siksika Reserve in Gleichen on the Bow River, about 100 kilometres east of Calgary. Prince Charles was in Alberta to commemorate the centenary of Treaty 7, which several, mainly Blackfoot, bands had signed with the Crown back in Queen Victoria’s day. Mr. Klein’s assignment was to investigate conditions on the reserve and to find out how the Blackfoot felt they had fared under the treaty.

In a wide-ranging research trip, he studied the rituals and traditions of the Blackfoot and participated in sweat lodge ceremonies. Having developed an empathy for the Siksika people and gained their confidence, he returned with a camera crew and filmed an emotional and often angry documentary in which he confronted authorities about housing conditions and demanded to know why, for example, grocery stores had bulk supplies of vanilla extract on their shelves and why were they selling it at huge mark-ups to obvious alcoholics.

The reaction was immediate after the show aired in June, 1977: outrage from viewers and appreciation by the Siksika, who named him White Writer and later became his political supporters. He never turned his back on the first nations, perhaps in part because his wife Colleen is Métis.

As the years passed, he visited sweat lodges on the eve of provincial election campaigns, carried an eagle feather in his briefcase and hung braids of sweet grass in his offices. The First Nations didn’t forget him either. He was the second white person adopted into the Siksika Blackfoot Nation in 1993 and he was made an honorary chief by the Blood Tribe in 1996.

Mayor of Calgary

Mr. Klein’s biggest scoop as a journalist occurred when he stumbled into the morning story meeting at CFCN in August, 1980, and announced he was running for mayor. He was 37.

When his colleagues scoffed, he gave the story to a rival news operation, the Calgary Herald. “I’ve lived here all my life and it just seems to me a lot of people are paying very little attention to the quality of life in this city,” he said by way of a campaign platform. “There’s not enough attention to the heritage of the city and the community spirit has been lost.”

Instead of promises, Mr. Klein went out in the municipality and listened to voters. “Even if I can’t solve your problems, at least I’ll give you a forum and I’ll listen,” he said during the campaign, thereby articulating the gut philosophy that underlined his political career.

The underdog in a three-way race against incumbent Ross Alger and Alderman Peter Petrasuk, he scored big time when Mr. Love, a political science student at the University of Calgary, signed up as a volunteer on the “It’s Time for Klein” campaign. Mr. Love, whose services had been rejected by the other two candidates, brought discipline and coherence to the campaign.

To everybody’s surprise, including Mr. Klein’s, the candidate with zero political experience topped the polls after the ballots were counted on Oct. 15, 1980. It was not the last time he would defy the odds as a political force.

His first term began on a high, for Calgary was enjoying an annual growth rate of 5 per cent. Less than a month after the election he was in Europe promoting Calgary’s bid to host the 1988 Winter Olympics. In September, 1981, Calgary won the IOC vote.

Within a year, the economy was sliding downward faster than a bobsled. Still, the Olympics fast-tracked a light rail transit system into the northwest quadrant of the city, the building of a performing-arts centre and the Saddledome for the Calgary Flames hockey team – the kind of newcomers the mayor favoured – and a $3.5-billion capital works program.

By winning the mayoralty again in 1983 and 1986 with a record 90 per cent of the vote, Mr. Klein guaranteed he was still in office to preside over the games in 1988 – one of the highlights of his political life.

Provincial politics

Looking for a new challenge, Mr. Klein, nominally a Liberal, ran for the legislature in 1989 for the Progressive Conservatives in Calgary-Elbow. If he had expected to reprise his romp to victory in the mayoralty election in Calgary, he was disappointed. He won by fewer than 900 votes over Liberal candidate Gib Clark and worried that he had made a mistake in jumping from local to provincial politics. The PCs remained in government, although with a reduced majority. Premier Don Getty was defeated in his Edmonton-Whitemud riding but won a by-election in Stettler after PC Brian C. Downey obligingly vacated his seat for his leader.

Mr. Klein, who served as minister of the environment, a relatively junior role then in petroleum-rich Alberta, took on his portfolio with enthusiasm and toured the province to familiarize himself with his brief and to put a human face – his – on environmental issues. His big success was pushing an omnibus environmental package through the legislature.

By 1992, Mr. Getty was unpopular in his own party. Despite his attempts to cut spending, the budget was in deficit and he was worn out by his constitutional efforts on behalf of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

Premier Don Getty announced his intention to leave politics in September, 1992, and the process for electing a new leader was changed. Party members were allowed to vote directly for the leader, a system that favoured Mr. Klein’s salesmanship tactics and personality. He won on the second ballot by 15,000 votes over his leading rival, Nancy Betkowski (later Nancy MacBeth). Many of those Klein supporters had been signed up in the week-long gap between the first ballot – where Ms. Betkowski had triumphed over a field of candidates – and the second and final one. Mr. Getty resigned both as leader and premier in early December, 1992.

Premier of Alberta

As premier, Mr. Klein positioned himself in contrast to Mr. Getty, promising the people of Alberta that he would eliminate the more than $2.5-billion deficit, attack the provincial debt and reduce the size of government, all in a platform called the Alberta Advantage.

The master of the common touch, Mr. Klein had a knack for couching complex problems and policies in sound bites and slogans, such as “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem” or “You can’t cross a canyon in two leaps,” or “You have to hunt where the ducks are,” to gain approval for deep cuts in health care, education and social services.

In his first election as premier, in June, 1993, he led his party to a majority by winning 51 seats, to 32 for the Liberals, and wiping the New Democratic Party off the electoral map. He eliminated the deficit in 1995, two years before the deadline he had set. The drastic cuts had played a key role, but so had the economy, which had begun to turn around. Oil and gas prices were rising, corporate tax revenues more than doubled and gambling revenues from video lottery terminals were gushing.

Cutting when the government pantry was bare was one thing; how to justify fiscal prudence when the larder was overflowing was trickier. The Klein administration tried to reinvent the way it did business, fashioned on a cheaper and more efficient model, by offloading many services to the private sector, including retail liquor outlets and deregulating the electricity market. He also created a firewall around Alberta to promote a fortress mentality, to deflect opposition from Ottawa and to focus communications messages through the Public Affairs Bureau, or the Ministry of Truth, as some critics, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, dubbed it.

He won re-election in 1997 with an even larger share of the popular vote (51 per cent) than in the previous election four years earlier, and with 63 of the 83 seats.

He made some big mistakes but nobody could regroup faster. In March 1998, his justice minister Jonathan (Jon) Havelock introduced The Institutional Confinement and Sexual Sterilization Compensation Act, allowing victims, who had been forcibly sterilized, no more than $150,000 in compensation, and invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to block any legal challenges.

Faced with opposition outrage at the spectre of victims, whose human rights had been denied in the past, being robbed of their legal rights in the future, Mr. Klein recalibrated quickly and had his justice minister rise in the legislature the next day, apologize and withdraw the bill. Crisis defused.

Having learned a hard lesson about the political dangers of blithely invoking the notwithstanding clause, Mr. Klein refused to object to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the case of Delwin Vriend. An instructor at a religious college in Edmonton, Mr. Vriend had sued the Alberta government, arguing that the province’s human-rights legislation should have protected him from being fired because he was gay.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which agreed with Mr. Vriend and consequently read the protection of gay rights into the legislation. Despite a volatile caucus that included the social conservative Stockwell Day, Mr. Klein insisted it was “morally wrong” to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and won the vote by a two to one margin. Crisis averted.

The third time he went to the electorate, in March, 2001, he won an even more conclusive mandate with 62 per cent of the popular vote, and 74 out of the 83 seats in the Legislature. After the results were in, Mr. Klein, who had been sipping red wine for hours, delivered an emotional victory speech that began with the arrogant boast: “Welcome to Ralph’s World.”

A formidable boozer, Mr. Klein was forced to confront his drinking problem in his third term as premier. In November, 2001, he was so drunk when he introduced one of his heroes, Bill Clinton, at a Calgary fundraiser that the former American president was said to have asked to be distanced from the premier as the evening wore on and on.

Less than a month later, Mr. Klein dropped into a homeless shelter after his reporter’s instincts were roused by a series on poverty in the Edmonton Journal. Unfortunately, he was no longer a journalist, it was late at night and he was far from sober. Mr. Klein got into an argument with some of the drop-ins, told them to get jobs and flung some money on the floor before his security guard managed to hustle him into the waiting car.

As so often happened with Mr. Klein, he had no recollection of his activities the next morning – other than a hangover. Reporters, tipped off by eyewitnesses, began asking questions and the ever savvy Mr. Klein decided it was time to come clean about an alcohol problem that had begun half a century earlier when he was a preteen slugging back homemade wine in a neighbour’s basement.

He called a news conference, which was covered nationally, tearfully acknowledged he had a drinking problem – although declining to admit he was an alcoholic – and vowed to deal with it. Hundreds of e-mails and letters of support poured in. Once again, Mr. Klein had won the day in the only forum that counts for a politician: public opinion.

He garnered the same empathy two years later in an off-the-cuff reaction to the mad cow crisis. When a rancher shipped a diseased cow to a slaughterhouse in northern Alberta in 2003, the premier opined to the CBC: “I guess any self-respecting rancher would have shot, shovelled and shut up, but he didn’t do that.”

While inspectors and other officials looked askance, Mr. Klein surmounted criticism because he was voicing what many ranchers privately felt: Take care of the problem and keep your trap shut. With shipments of Alberta beef stopped at the U.S. border and banned in other countries, Mr. Klein tried to defuse the potential disaster in the $5-billion-plus industry with a grandstand stunt: He offered to give $10-billion to any Japanese citizen who came to Canada and became ill from eating meat that could be traced to mad cow disease.

Mr. Klein was elected for a fourth term on Nov. 22, 2004, but his seemingly invincible popularity was beginning to wane. He retained his majority with 62 of the 83 seats, but he could only claim 47 per cent of the vote. Before the election he had said that this would be his last term, but he was vague about his exit strategy until, shortly before a scheduled leadership review at the end of March, 2006, he announced that he would retire early in 2008.

That wasn’t soon enough for many of the delegates. He won the support of only 55 per cent of them, considerably less than the 90-per-cent approval he had received in previous reviews or the 75 per cent that Mr. Klein felt he needed to continue as leader. He officially declared his intention to resign in September, but remained premier until his successor, Ed Stelmach, assumed office on Dec. 14, 2006. He resigned his Calgary-Elbow seat in the legislature on Jan. 15, 2007.

Retirement

Unlike many provincial premiers, including Peter Lougheed, David Peterson, Frank McKenna and Roy Romanow, who went on to rewarding and influential post-political careers in corporate, diplomatic and academic life, Mr. Klein seemed unprepared for retirement and puzzled when it came to setting his own agenda.

Although not a lawyer, he accepted a position as a senior business adviser with Borden Ladner Gervais early in 2007 and an appointment the following year as the inaugural Ralph Klein chair in Media Studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Both roles seemed more ceremonial than actual. As political scientist Duane Bratt told The Globe and Mail in April, 2011: “...there was a 9 a.m. class and I knew Ralph’s reputation, so I was a bit worried. But he rolls in with a big Tim Hortons mug, leather jacket and a pair of jeans and just sat at the front of the class and told really great stories. What they remembered were the drinking stories with Mike Harris,” said Prof. Bratt. “That’s what the students took away.”

Then, in March, 2010, he appeared sitting on a golden throne as the star of the cable television game show, On the Clock . His role was to award “Ralph Bucks” for the best answers supplied by three competing contestants to questions such as: Name the benefits of global warming in 10 seconds or less. Mr. Klein awarded the most Ralph Bucks to the male contestant who said the biggest plus was the opportunity to wear his hot pants more often.

Final days

By 2010, Mr. Klein was suffering the effects of COPD, a degenerative lung disease linked to smoking. The diagnosis was only made public in December, 2010, when a noticeably failing Mr. Klein confessed in an interview with the Calgary Herald that his “memory is gone because of a lack of oxygen.” But, he added with a flash of the old Klein wit, “I’m not dead yet.”

Less than six months later, his family revealed that the former premier, then 68, was also suffering from frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative and progressive disease of the frontal lobes.

“He went for a whole series of tests in mid-February,” his old friend and former chief of staff Rod Love told the Canadian Press in April, 2011, saying that the family wanted the public to know the truth. “People who were running into him were a little alarmed at what they were seeing and so it is what it is,” Mr. Love said. “For the greatest political communicator of our generation, it’s tough to see. I’ve spent 30 years of my life with him, so it’s a bit of a shock.”

Mrs. Klein cared for her husband as long as she could, but his health had deteriorated so much by the fall of 2011 that he was moved into a nursing home. That is where he died.

Mr. Klein is survived by his wife Colleen, five children, several grandchildren and his extended family.

Follow on Twitter: @semartin71

Topics: