*‘Alberta is a one-party state with tight control of just about everything centered in the Premier’s office.’* Gillian Steward, former managing editor of _The Calgary Herald_.
The pundits call him King Ralph – in the western Canadian province of Alberta, Ralph Klein can do no wrong. He’s a right-wing prairie populist with a streetfighter’s instincts. The 60-year-old ex-journalist has been the oil-rich province’s premier for a decade and with every election his margin of victory just seems to get bigger. Disturbing: because behind his blue-collar, man-of-the-people image, roly-poly Ralph is a one-man wrecking crew. He has set out systematically to dismantle Alberta’s public sector and remake the province into a freewheeling, capitalist paradise. Normally, this might not be much to get excited about. For all its petro-wealth and bracing mountain scenery Alberta is no California. But Ralph is a trendsetter. His brand of deficit-slashing, tax-cutting conservatism has already spread to several other provinces. Canada’s much-vaunted public-health system is threatened by his shenanigans – as is the country’s endorsement of the Kyoto agreement on climate change.
Klein is a larger-than-life figure on the Canadian political scene. In 1980 he used his position as a city hall reporter as a springboard to the Mayor of Calgary job. He was re-elected in 1982 and 1986, currying public support by blaming the city’s crime problems on ‘eastern creeps and bums’ and by hosting the enormously successful 1988 Winter Olympics. He came as a bumptious outsider to the Alberta Tories but soon elbowed his way to the top, winning the leadership as a rookie MP. He was elected Premier in 1992 and has been there ever since. After his third re-election last December, a grinning Klein strode up to the mike and declared: ‘Welcome to Ralph’s world.’
Bizarrely, this latest coronation came just days after the visibly soused Premier wandered into a downtown Edmonton homeless shelter at one in the morning and berated the inhabitants for their unemployed state. He then scattered a fistful of coins on the floor, before storming out to his chauffeur-driven limo. The next day a tearful Klein admitted that he likes a drink. ‘I know I have a problem and I’m going to deal with it,’ he told reporters. ‘I am going to go as long as I possibly can and hopefully end this journey without having another drink... one day at a time.’
Ralph’s love of the bottle is well known – though rarely mentioned by Alberta’s sycophantic press, probably because the media is afraid of being shut out by Klein’s handlers. According to one local scribbler: ‘The Klein team approach over the years has involved a mega-carrot and mega-stick. If you’re in the club you get stories that enhance your career; if not, you’re a doormat on a muddy day.’
People used to joke about Klein’s incoherent ramblings when he was Mayor of Calgary. He ran one of his mayoralty campaigns from the St Louis Hotel and Bar and the owner, a good friend, had special mugs made up which he dubbed Klein steins. None of this though seems to tarnish his appeal to Albertans. His popular support zoomed after the homeless shelter incident. One caller to an open-line radio show quipped: ‘Ralph can run the country (sic) half-drunk better than the other people we have in charge.’
Would that it were so. Close examination shows that the Premier’s policy shifts have been disastrous. His schemes to deregulate the province’s electricity and to allow natural gas to flow freely south to US markets cost taxpayers billions as rates for both energy sources skyrocketed. When electricity prices spiralled by 250 per cent, a worried Klein mailed $2.3 billion in rebates to disgruntled consumers. Even corporate bigshots are upset. The executive director of the Industrial Power Consumers and Co-generators complained: ‘I could have picked three monkeys from the Calgary Zoo and they could have done a better job with deregulation than this government.’ Luckily for Ralph, windfall revenues from natural resources, mostly gas and oil, amounted to nearly $10 billion the same year. For all his populist panache Ralph is no friend of the downtrodden. Under his business-friendly regime incomes for all Albertans, apart from the richest 10 per cent, have stagnated.
Klein has also pioneered cuts in public health and opened the door to private hospitals in his plan to reform what he calls a wasteful and inefficient public sector. The legislation (called the Protection of Health Care Act – George Orwell would have loved it) was met with widespread protest and polls showed the majority of Albertans rejected the move. Always the good democrat, Ralph simply invoked closure and rammed the bill through. His latest salvo is to ‘delist’ what he deems ‘unnecessary’ medical services currently covered under medicare. In late September, Alberta gave the go-ahead for the first private surgical clinic in Calgary – for knee, hip and back operations – claiming it would ‘ease the strain’ on the public system. Defenders of Canada’s publicly funded, universal healthcare system were outraged.
It’s the thin end of the wedge. If US private insurers get their foot in the Canadian door, according to NAFTA rules there is a good chance the rest of the country may be forced to follow suit. Ralph’s cheery populism may not seem so benign when Canadians are faced with an American-style ‘for-profit’ medical system. Ralph’s world, indeed. A scary place.