How should we remember Ralph Klein?

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Article submitted by Nick Fillmore

King KleinCondolences and praise poured in for former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, who died on Friday, March 29, at the age of 70.”We remember what a force of personality he was, how driven he was, how motivated he was, how straightforward he was, and that we trusted him implicitly.”

………………………………………………– Alberta  Premier Alison Redford

“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.” — Stephen Harper.

Yes, as the compliments poured in, it must be remembered that Klein was one of Canada’s most aggressive neo-liberals. “King Ralph”, as he was widely known, served as premier of Alberta from 1992 to 2006.

A blustering problem-drinker, Klein was forgiven for many of his personal blunders and drunken escapades by frontier-mentality Albertans who believed in rugged individualism and small government.

No matter how rude Klein became, he also was a darling of the mainstream media. When a drunken Premier berated poor unemployed men at midnight at a homeless shelter, telling them to get jobs and throwing money at them, he was forgiven by media and right-wingers because, well, it was Ralph and that’s just the way he was.

However, the homeless shelter incident is a clear sign of how the establishment and its media viewed the plight of the poor with indifference.

King Klein as deficit slayer

Klein’s true legacy is a string of anti-social policies and programs. He was possessed by the unnecessary goal of eliminating Alberta’s debt in what was becoming the country’s richest province. In just over a decade, he paid down the debt of $23-billion, cutting in critical areas such as health care, education and social services, killing the government pension plan and privatizing liquor stores.

Klein slashed thousands of job, and showed nothing but contempt for the tens-of-thousands of protestors who fought against his ideological-driven fanaticism.
Klein believed strongly that health care services should be provided by the private sector. His government paved the way to allow provincial health authorities to buy medical services from privately-owned medical companies. The federal government, committed to national health care, reminded Klein of his government’s commitments to deliver public health care. However, Klein cheated and allowed some questionable services to be privitized.

While Klein was “sold” as a man of the people, he clearly favoured the rich. In 2001, he made Alberta the first jurisdiction in North America to replace a progressive income tax with a “flat tax” – the dream of extreme right-wing ideologues in the U.S. The flat tax gave huge tax breaks to the rich. In 2009, the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute said that the it was costing the province more than $5-billion a year in tax revenues.

 King Klein the ‘academic’

A key incident raises questions about Klein’s honesty. In 2004 – when he was premier – Klein was accused of plagiarizing a paper for his degree in communications from the University of Athabasca. The Edmonton Journal reported that about five pages of a 13-page report on Chilean politics and media were lifted directly from various Internet sites. Surprisingly, Klein was not failed, but instead was given a grade of 77 per cent on the paper.

After eliminating the deficit, Klein basically flunked out of politics because he had no idea what else to do in government.

When the tired and worn out Premier needed a soft “retirement” gig, it’s believed that about 20 of his wealthy oil and business friends chipped in to provide a $2.5-million anonymous gift to set up the Ralph Klein Chair in Media Studies at Mount Royal. Normally, endowed chairs are limited to academics of considerable distinction.

Students saw the Klein appointment as a sick joke. He got off to a bad start. The former premier – who couldn’t make it to his office before 10 a.m. – said journalists were lazy. They gasped when the man who ran the province for so many years admitted he didn’t read newspapers or watch TV news.

Klein can be praised – or blamed – for the early development of the tar sands. In the mid-1990s, it was unclear whether the tar sands would become viable. When Ottawa introduced a tax write-off (i.e. a give away) for oil sands investment, Alberta allowed oil companies to pay a royalty of one per cent (i.e. a give away) until developers recovered all project costs.  Talk about theft! The two tax ‘adjustments’ launched the massive ramp-up of tar sands production, helping the tar sands become today’s multi-billion dollar industry.

According to environmentalists, nearly every tar sands project was approved without any consideration given to the impact on the environment or greenhouse gas emissions.

In many ways, Klein was a tragic figure. A drunkard, a buffoon, unreasonably stubborn, and the sad victim of Alzheimer’s in his late 60s, he never had a vision for what should have been done in Alberta. He was a one-issue populist who got elected to eliminate the deficit dragon – a calling that damaged health care, education and social services so seriously critics say they still have not fully recovered.

Political leaders and journalists provided the usual hyperbole to describe a fallen man. Hopefully, history will do a better job of providing the true story of Ralph Klein.

Nick Fillmore is a freelance Toronto journalist and social activist who covered Canadian politics through the Klein era. Comments welcome: fillmore0274@rogers.com

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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