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Ralph Klien, the former Premier of Alberta, has passed away after a long illness. More here at the National Post:
Don Martin: We may not see the likes of humble, honest Ralph Klein again
The man affectionately christened King Ralph of Alberta is gone.
Former Alberta premier and Calgary mayor Ralph Klein passed away Friday at age 70, suffering from pneumonia and dementia.
His reign has its genesis in the Calgary city council he covered as a CTV television journalist in the 1970s. He eavesdropped outside private meetings. He drank scoops out of inebriated contacts in seedy back-alley bars. His fraternity of sources included cops, accountants, hookers and bikers. He was a formidable, crusading journalist even though, as a hard-living and heavy drinker whom I once retrieved from the Calgary police drunk tank, he seemed headed for a hard fall at a young age.
But Klein was a survivor full of surprises, if not shocks, and never to be underestimated.
He ran and won the Calgary mayoralty in 1980. Far from being a one-term wonder, he went on to win three increasingly lopsided election victories during challenging economic times in the oil patch.
When he moved into provincial politics, pundits predicted instant doom for a loose cannon chaffing against the choke-chain of party discipline. Again he excelled, first as an environment minister and then as the anti-establishment leader to revive a Progressive Conservative dynasty which badly needed a reset button pushed at the top. Four majority government election wins followed.
Many politicians tried and failed to replicate Klein’s magnetic electoral and personal appeal as a common man with extraordinary abilities. Despite many missteps and chronic tongue-tripping, which forced him into quick backtracks and convincing apologies, he was invariably forgiven by voters for being one of them.
Being humble and human wasn’t an act. He bummed cigarettes, drove a Volkswagen Beetle as his last car, preferred pubs to clubs, lived in the same modest bungalow for four decades and demanded to be called “Ralph” by everyone.
As Klein described it, his political secret was simply figuring out which way the parade was going and get in front of it. And he had the telepathic gift of being able to see the route far in advance.
Being humble and human wasn’t an act
That’s why Klein knew he could swing a blunt axe at deficit spending in the mid-1990s, cutting deep and sparing no one, only to watch his government’s popularity soar ever higher. The prime minister back then, Jean Chrétien, was paying close attention and privately credits Klein for giving him the inspiration to act against federal overspending.
But Ralph Klein did more than cure a fiscal problem. He privatized liquor retailing and auto registration to wild public applause. He introduced a flat tax on income. He invested heavily in medical research.
While an ardent environmentalist in terms of protecting parks, fishing grounds and sensitive ecology, he laughed off greenhouse gases as a byproduct of farting cows.
He accepted only executive summaries and never tolerated thick reports cluttering his desk. He denounced his political opponents, but respected them enough to listen if they made a legitimate argument.
He conspired with chief of staff Rod Love to leak almost everything to grateful reporters, encounters he called document perusal opportunities, knowing they would become the political IOUs he could cash in when times got tough.
Sure he made mistakes. He cut health care too deeply, sending thousands of precious nurses and doctors out of the province before he blew up the Calgary hospital he was born in. He tried to cut down kindergarten hours, until the backlash prompted second thoughts. He announced a plan to invoke the constitutional notwithstanding clause to deny those who were wrongly sterilized all due process of law to seek compensation. Within 24 hours, he personally killed the idea for its horrific optics.
Of course, he had something a drinking problem. After a notorious appearance at a homeless shelter after a long night on the town, he took a vow of public temperance, but he never entirely stopped. He just didn’t drink in public.
Toward the end of his political life, he seemed bored. He privately complained to me that it was easier to govern in an era of restraint than in times of plenty. Too many people have their palms out now, he’d say. And he didn’t like to say no when the province could easily afford to say yes.
The last time we talked was in July 2010, I found him alone in a private box at the Calgary Stampede. We had a few drinks and then cheered on the last chuckwagon race of the season. Minutes later, as a tractor pulled the evening performance stage into place, he demanded to know what was happening because they had yet to run the last race featuring his favorite driver. I explained that they had just completed it and his driver had won. He refused to believe me and stormed off in a huff. That’s when I realized something was seriously wrong.
That set the stage for Ralph Klein’s sad final years suffering from the relentless clouding of dementia. One of Canada’s most gifted communicators, with an impeccable memory for names, passed away in a mental fog, struggling to talk or even recognize his family.
But long may the fond memory of Ralph Phillip Klein live on in the minds of Albertans and all Canadians. His King Ralph reign featured a blue-collar force of unique character who kept his campaign promises, admitted his personal mistakes, never strutted a swollen head or oversized ego and was rewarded with seven massive victories at the civic and provincial ballot box.
He once described his first victory as premier in 1993 as the Miracle on the Prairie. In fact, there was no bigger miracle than having a rough-and-tumble Calgary kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks morph into a phenomenon of political personality.
In this deteriorating age of chronic flip-flips, endless spin and robotic performances by our politicians, the true tragedy of Ralph Klein’s passing is that we may not see the likes of him again.
(CTV Power Play host Don Martin was author of the best-selling biography, King Ralph, published by Key Porter Books in 2003.)