Martha and Henry will miss King Ralph’s political charm

The king is dead. Ralph Klein, the straight-shootin’, smokin’, drinkin’ populist premier, died Good Friday

The king is dead.

Ralph Klein, the straight-shootin’, smokin’, drinkin’ populist premier, died Good Friday after a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and dementia. He was 70.

It may be some time before the eulogists, columnists and apologists fairly tabulate his 14-year reign as premier of Alberta; he was a polarizing figure who alienated unions and bureaucrats, and was embraced by the Marthas and Henrys of the province.

Ralph called ’em as he seen ’em and that endeared him to “ordinary Albertans” — as he liked to call us, differentiating us from the suits in Calgary office towers, who also liked him.

Ralph was on his way out after a good run as premier when we last had time to sit down and chat. He and the cabinet ministers who would jostle to replace him as leader of the Progressive Conservative party and premier attended the annual convention of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (AWNA). He seemed tired, drawn and exasperated, like a corpulent balloon with a slow leak. A smoker who never seemed to have any of his own, he clucked when I told him my $400 in Ralph Bucks bought some very fine premium cigars.

A decade earlier, in the midst of his cuts, the Alberta Government sponsored lunch at the AWNA convention. Not sure what the budget was, we asked what should be served in light of the cutbacks. We enjoyed Alberta beef on a bun and ice cold Big Rock. That was Ralph.

Jim Henderson, former health minister in the Social Credit government of Harry Strom, used to pop into my office in Devon and talk politics. Long before Klein won his fourth solid majority government, Henderson observed Ralph should retire because he had “lost the fire in his belly.” I think he was bored with governing in Alberta’s salad days — how could that compare to slaying the deficit and living the Alberta Advantage?

Ralph told me that day that it was more difficult to govern when the treasury was awash in oil royalties because everyone had a hand out, pleading their case for funding. It was much easier to say no when Alberta was $23 billion in debt and everyone was tightening their belts. When he turned over the keys to Ed Stelmach, there was no deficit, no debt; the sustainability fund was $17 million and the Heritage Fund stood at $14 billion. He proved you could govern progressively without deficit spending. And in key circumstances, personality is better than policy.

Hard as it was to believe, Ralph admitted the government didn’t have a plan to manage the billions; it took them by surprise. It showed.

A longtime liberal before he became a PC MLA and cabinet minister, in his first term Klein cut the size of the provincial cabinet, cut the civil service and cut almost $1 billion in spending. Early on he carved out the now cliché, “Alberta doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.” Years later he could spend $1 billion before noon.

He cut health care and education spending and the province has never recovered. Klein tried a couple of times to sneak some form of private health care into the system and was soundly rebuffed by Albertans each time. Remember the Bill 11 demonstrations at the Alberta Legislature? How about electricity and natural gas deregulation and then the rebates to ease the pain?

He didn’t unite Albertans behind him — except at election time when the opposition parties had no one to match his folksy political magnetism. He did rally Albertans in his battles — some trumped up — against the Liberal governments in Ottawa. Would he have succeeded with a conservative government in Ottawa?

Coincidentally, Klein’s health worsened as Premier Alison Redford began to drain the surplus and deliver a deficit budget, muddying the budget transparency he had legislated.

The changes he made to government and the billions he saved for future generations have been all but wiped out by his successors. Ralph made his mistakes and admitted most of them. Whether it was shared by all, he had a vision for Alberta and he delivered.

The best compliment I can offer is that Ralph was a good guy. Alberta will miss his winning mix of charisma and candour.

— OFF THE RECORD