Alberta Politics
Premier Ralph Klein playing golf with Dan MacLennan, president of the Alberta Union of provincial Employees during part of Mr. Klein’s term in office (Photo: Dan MacLennan).

On the anniversary of his death, we come to bury Ralph Klein, not to praise him – but just the same the man had his moments

Posted on March 29, 2021, 2:33 am
6 mins

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the death of Ralph Klein, so we can expect Conservatives in media, social and otherwise, to strive mightily today to outdo one another with improbable panegyrics to the man.

The memory of Mr. Klein, who was premier from Dec. 14, 1992, to Dec. 14, 2006, is bound to be bathed is a saintly golden glow throughout the day, in Conservative circles at least. 

Mr. Klein in 2006 (Photo: Paul Duchart, Creative Commons).

No doubt as this is written, Premier Jason Kenney is burning the midnight oil in the Sky Palace, thesaurus in hand, scratching out words of praise his issues managers have penned for him and substituting his own special brand of maudlin pomposity. 

Certainly, some of the people who will be praising Mr. Klein’s memory today and mourning his loss to Alberta will have been among those Progressive Conservatives who had tired of him in 2006 and shoved him toward the exit. Ah well, absence makes the heart grow fonder. 

Mr. Klein, for all his flaws, had a certain charm the present incumbent to his office lacks. The former journalist, Liberal and big-spending mayor of Calgary may have seemed like a bit of a conman, but the charm that goes with that job description was what made a lot of Albertans think they wouldn’t mind having a beer with the guy. 

I have in fact had a beer with Mr. Klein, and I can vouch for the fact he could be pretty entertaining in his cups – although you might not want to stick around too long if his friend and colleague Peter Elzinga wasn’t there to whisk him out of the room when things started to turn dark and stormy. Otherwise, you might end up being reminded that you were among the bums and creeps Mr. Klein disdained. 

A neoliberal of convenience, Mr. Klein will be remembered today for balancing budgets and paying down Alberta’s debt in a time when the nostrums of neoliberalism were still not yet fully discredited. Few commentators will mention the huge infrastructure deficit he left behind, the bane of more than one subsequent premier. 

The impact of the cuts he implemented in health care and other public services will be papered over, or not commented upon at all, and certainly won’t be characterized as a Kleintastrophe from which the province has barely recovered to this day. 

It might surprise some of the people remembering him fondly today that he liked Dan MacLennan, in those days president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, and sometimes even listened to him. This certainly resulted in less harm being done to the public service in the latter years of Mr. Klein’s time in office than might otherwise have been expected.

Jason Kenney as Canadian Taxpayers Federation president in the 1990s (Photo: Screenshot of CBC newscast).

But then, unlike the current crop of Alberta Conservatives, Mr. Klein was no ideologue. As former NDP Leader Ray Martin pointed out last year, the “brutal cuts” of the 1990s were Liberal leader Laurence Decore’s idea. The pragmatic Mr. Klein just noticed the Liberals were gaining traction, so he hopped aboard their bandwagon. 

It will go unremarked in Conservative circles today that one person Mr. Klein didn’t particularly like was the self-righteous young prig who ran the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in Alberta at the time, a fellow named Jason Kenney. 

Mr. Klein often did have a twinkle in his eyes, as Mr. Kenney has been known to remind us, but not so much when the topic of Mr. Kenney himself came up. 

Annoyed at Mr. Kenney’s pious hectoring, Mr. Klein attacked the CTF in 1993 for paying its sales agents big commissions for signing up what were referred to at the time as members – although we know now, of course, that they aren’t members at all. 

“I think 37-per-cent commission to salespeople spreading not totally the truth about what government operations are all about is a little bit of robbery,” the Edmonton Journal quoted Mr. Klein saying in April that year. 

“Quit robbing the old senior citizens of their money to generate this kind of fear,” he crossly told Mr. Kenney in the Calgary Herald’s account. 

Threatened with legal action by the future premier in a hallway contretemps in the Legislature Building, Mr. Klein retracted his allegation of robbery, metaphorical though it obviously was, but added, “I still think that what you’re doing is not entirely ethical.” 

So, truth be told, I miss having Mr. Klein around a bit too. The evil that men do lives after them, as someone said, but it would be useful just the same to get his take on Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party. 

I’m willing to bet that despite some points of agreement it wouldn’t be entirely complimentary. Especially if you offered to buy him a beer. 

22 Comments to: On the anniversary of his death, we come to bury Ralph Klein, not to praise him – but just the same the man had his moments

  1. John B.

    March 29th, 2021

    Besides the exceptionally good manners of its people when not engaged in political discussions, my most enduring memories of Alberta are of Ralph the Dog and Ralph the Mayor.

    Reply
  2. tom

    March 29th, 2021

    You really nailed this, Dave:

    “No doubt as this is written, Premier Jason Kenney is burning the midnight oil in the Sky Palace, thesaurus in hand, scratching out words of praise his issues managers have penned for him and substituting his own special brand of maudlin pomposity. “

    Reply
  3. ema

    March 29th, 2021

    Panegyrics….that’s a big word….like marmalade!!!
    This reader had to look it up, so that’s my new word for today!

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      March 29th, 2021

      It was either that or encomium/encomia. I debated that for a while. DJC

      Reply
  4. Roger

    March 29th, 2021

    Para 3. Wonderful picture it creates. I can just imagine, lonely Kenney in the sky palace, hunched over his desk, one light on, scribbling away, cursing all those liberals, ndp types, the PM, Rachel Notley, civil servants, doctors, nurses, etc…

    Reply
    • Lars

      March 29th, 2021

      … anyone with an education, really.

      Reply
  5. Abs

    March 29th, 2021

    One thing about Ralph was that he called ’em like he saw ’em. Imagine what he would say about chasing Bigfoot. I’m sure he would find a few choice words, and some pocket lint or a dusty Lifesaver to toss at His Heinie, since coins are an anachronism in present times.

    Reply
  6. Rocky

    March 29th, 2021

    You came to bury him, eh, not to praise him? “The evil that men do lives after them, as someone said.” I saw what you did there.

    Reply
  7. Dave

    March 29th, 2021

    I believe your comments about Klein were very insightful, but then you did have that beer with him, so that gave you some extra perspective. First of all, as you said, he wasn’t so much an ideologue as someone who realized he could sell big cuts at the time and that would help him and his gang stay in power. Some of those in the more Conservative media, often those who never lived in Alberta idolize him as some sort of right wing saint. He sure was not that and he definitely was not much of a social conservative himself although he had some in his government and humoured them. By now it is probably long forgotten that one of the very first casualties of the Klein area actually was a social conservative cabinet minister from the previous government who made disparaging remarks about Klein.

    I always find Kenney’s claims to be the heir of the Klein legacy most amusing. As you noted they did not have a very warm relationship, as far as we can tell. I suspect Klein detested the sort of pomposity that Kenney seems to generally exude. Of course, Kenney went away from Alberta for a long time during most of the Klein years, so perhaps he also did not fully understand how the province changed. Enthusiasm for brutal cuts soon waned and a strong debate on the merits of them soon started that continues to this day. What saved Klein was his folksy charm, improving gas and oil prices and generally favourable memories from his days as Calgary mayor. Klein was also fairly good at quickly realizing when he made a big political mistake and making a contrite apology or quietly pulling back on more controversial measures.

    In the end, I think the province and his own party moved on in the early 2000’s and realized there was more to governing than balancing a budget. I doubt our province will ever see a Premier as colourful as him again and it probably does not need to be said, but Jason Kenney sure is no Ralph Klein.

    Reply
  8. Clyde

    March 29th, 2021

    It was an open secret in Calgary that Barf was an avid wife-beater. One of his wives worked with my neighbour, and she had a terrible habit of walking into doors. She used to hide out from Barf with my in-laws in Sunnyside when he was being extra-charming. My former boss’s wife was an ardent Kon volunteer until Barf K-O’d the ol’ ball-and-chain at a Kon fais do-do and nobody batted an eye. Some friends of mine witnessed a melee in a Fourth Street restaurant in which Barf or a member of his entourage, nobody was sure, K-O’d a waitress, with a similar non-chalant response.

    This is not idle, gossip, it is evidence that as voters we don’t have the foggiest notion of what really goes on with the place-holders we think represent us in government. If a guy is as unstable and pathological as ol’ Barf, is it believable that such a person is actually in charge? And if Barf wasn’t in charge, then who was?

    Reply
  9. Alan K . Spiller

    March 29th, 2021

    As someone who lived the Ralph Klein horror story I will never forget what he did to this province and our children’s future. The former MLAs from the Lougheed era that I got to know certainly agreed with me. Along with lawyers, accountants, bankers, and oilmen I knew.

    Our family had known the Klein family since the early 1960’s . Dad referred to Ralph as that sleazy bastard. I knew him as a grade ten drop out , arrogant bully , with a major drinking problem because that’s what he was.

    When he was campaigning to become premier his mother Flo told my mother she didn’t think he was capable of running this province properly. Flo wasn’t surprised when mum told her we weren’t going to support him.

    When he began closing hospitals and cutting 5,000 nursing positions his father Phil said to me Al what in the hell is the matter with my son. While he gives away billions in royalties he is forcing us to try to live without a proper health care system. This could cost some people their lives. Phil was right that’s what it did. I helped nine doctors and at least two dozen nurses relocate out of this province and not one wanted to go.

    In 2015 his daughter Angie , in an interview, proved her father was a Liberal and pointed how furious she was with him for giving away billions in taxes and admitted she had been trying to help us vote him out. The fact is members of the Klein family were a lot smarter than the people who blindly supported him , they knew what a disaster he was creating.

    My late parents and two sisters had spent countless hours volunteering for the Lougheed and Getty government. A brother in-law , in his spare time, voluntarily flew the government plane for them, and Lougheed’s energy minister Bill Dickie was a brother in-law of one of my uncles. Dad donated round $30,000. to their party , and Klein almost killed him with his massive cuts.

    About 20 years ago I had a letter in the Calgary herald outlining what some of Klein’s policies were doing to us. I received a phone call from a senior in Calgary . He thanked me for writing the letter and told what he had experienced with Klein.
    Him and his wife thought Klein was wonderful. Their children bought them tickets to one of his $250 a plate fund raising dinners and they were thrilled. They soon learned that Klein’s speech was just a pack of lies and they didn’t believe a word of it, yet the seniors around them certainly did. After it was over he went to the washroom before heading home. When he came out of the washroom there was Klein talking to one of his MLAs, he over heard him say I could tell these idiots anything and they would believe it. That’s the Klein I had known he loved to make fools of people.

    Don Getty told me in 2003 that inviting Liberal Klein into the Conservative party was the dumbest thing he ever did and I certainly agreed. Five of our best friends lost their jobs because of his massive budget cuts that weren’t necessary had he continued to collect royalties and taxes at the Lougheed levels , as has been proven time and time again.

    In 2006 Klein told Albertans that they weren’t smart enough to understand his plans for health care reform so he wasn’t going to tell us what they were and it got him kicked out and he was forced to take an early retirement.

    Now we have this clone of Klein deliberately following his stupidity. After cutting billions off taxes he now has to make up for this revenue cutting stupidity and like with Klein health care and education are his targets. Where is the intelligence in that?

    Reply
  10. Bob Raynard

    March 29th, 2021

    “Quit robbing the old senior citizens of their money to generate this kind of fear,” he crossly told Mr. Kenney

    And now, nearly 20 years later, Jason Kenney is still stealing from seniors. So far it is only teachers etc, but if he gets his way he will steal pensions from all of Alberta seniors.

    Reply
  11. Kang

    March 29th, 2021

    Premier Klein was responsible for much destruction on his watch. Comparing the consequences of Premier Klein’s actions with those of Kenney and the others makes for some sobering thoughts. Kenney and the UCP, along with Ottawa have bungled the public health response to Covid, causing thousands of needless deaths. Yet it was Klein who started the looting of Alberta which will result in much greater misery to come. As a smaller example, let’s not forget It was Klein who emboldened those who privatized drivers’ licensing in Alberta which allowed an inexperienced truck driver to kill 16 and injure 13 on the Humboldt junior hockey team bus. It was Kenney who reinforced that private licencing system. Whatever the comparison, it is clear the Conservatives/UCP and the Neo-liberals leave death and destruction in their wake.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      March 30th, 2021

      KANG: People were warning Ralph Klein not to privatize driver training. They said it would be a mistake to do so. Anyone who recalls the television show Canada’s Worst Driver, has noticed a large amount of participants on the show were from Alberta.
      Also, privatization of registries was another major mistake. Identity related crimes increased.
      When liquor stores were privatized in Alberta, neighbourhoods had increased problems.
      Deregulation of our utilities in Alberta was a very costly failure as well, causing Albertans to pay billions of dollars on this. These neoliberal policies are an abject failure. Mike Harris, the former PC premier of Ontario, was also doing this, and was likely influenced by his good friend, Ralph Klein. The Walkerton tainted water disaster is a prime example. Neoliberal policies just end up causing so many problems. It is not beneficial to pursue them.

      Reply
  12. Scotty on Denman

    March 29th, 2021

    I remember Ralph offering to pay bus fare so pesky immigrants from Qweebeck wouldn’t tarry in fairly anti-francophone Alberta, not disembark until reaching the West Coast where, presumably, they would collect welfare instead of in Alberta which, he seemed sure, is the only reason they had come so far.

    The offer caused a bit of constitutional conniption in Ottawa, and just ordinary conniption in Victoria. But, from another point de vue, it was probably better than scraping it up off the floor of a downtown homeless shelter. Or the carpet at the Cecil.

    Klein seemed like he wouldn’t object to being missed in this sort of way.

    Reply
  13. Just Me

    March 30th, 2021

    Ralph Klein, like Margret Thatcher, is STILL dead.

    Let’s dance of their graves and condemn anyone who dare praise them.

    Reply
  14. Anonymous

    March 30th, 2021

    There is absolutely nothing to give Ralph Klein accolades for, yet people still do it. This includes people I know, who aren’t even seniors. I also knew and know seniors who think Ralph Klein was amazing. Ralph Klein’s legacy in politics was that of failure. When Ralph Klein was Calgary’s mayor, he created a debt that was around $1.5 billion. Then, as the Alberta PC premier, Ralph Klein did quite costly boondoggles.
    – the giveaway of the oil that Peter Lougheed said belonged to Albertans, to corporations that weren’t Canadian, along with drastic oil royalty rate reductions, losing Alberta $575 billion.
    – the liquidation of the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which was used on very costly scandals, such as Alpac. Ralph Klein also used the Heritage Savings Trust Fund money as a way to make Alberta “debt free”.
    – the cause of lax environmental regulations in Alberta, such as with the oil companies in Alberta, giving Albertans a whopping $260 billion cost to rectify this.
    – Swan Hills, which is now exceeding $5 billion.
    – Miller West Pulp Mill, pegged at around $180 million.
    – West Edmonton Mall, which is close to $500 million.
    – ambulance and dispatch amalgamation, which was $125 million.
    – A.I.S.H, which was $100 million. Ralph Klein and his MLAs thought it was funny to make a mockery of the disabled and handicapped in front of the television cameras.
    – $400 million on the B.S.E bailout disaster.
    – $40 billion, or more on electricity deregulation, including the PPA mess.
    – an infrastructure debt which has never been remedied, and is $30 billion to $40 billion.
    – a flat tax kerfuffle, and other bad tax policies, that lost Alberta at least $150 billion.
    – privatization and deregulation policies, which harmed people, caused other problems, and increased costs.
    – very strong austerity measures, which included making many nurses and teachers jobless.
    – abysmal and degrading treatment of the vulnerable, including the homeless. This includes very poor income support rates.
    – making a fool out of himself, while he was drunk, including berating the homeless at a homeless shelter.
    – having a bad influence on other governments, such as the Mike Harris PC regime in Ontario.
    – disrespecting First Nations rights, such as with the Lubicon Cree Nation.
    – showing a disdain for democracy. This included bullying municipal leaders who didn’t agree with him, by cutting off their funding. It also included chastising media columnists who disagreed with him.
    Given all this, I think it’s baffling how people can praise Ralph Klein. He isn’t missed by me, but the damage he did is clearly visible, right to this very day.

    Reply
  15. David Grant

    March 30th, 2021

    I agree with Anonymous with his assessment of King Ralph’s legacy. While he wasn’t an ideology he did the bidding of those right winger who wanted to impose the neo-conservative or neo-liberal agenda which is to let corporations rule. While he was forced to back off from his proposals, he did lasting damage to this province and this is felt with climate change and the strains on the health system in dealing with COVID. He also was someone who plagiarized his political science paper which praised Pinochete’s privatization of the pension system. Sorry but I am not going to mourn his loss because we are still living with wreckage he brought.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      March 30th, 2021

      DAVID GRANT: Ralph Klein’s stupid antics in the Alberta Legislature, and in other government meetings were a shame. During one Legislative sitting, where there was a debate about public versus private auto insurance in Alberta, Ralph Klein mentioned the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Ralph Klein seemed to praise him. Another time, Ralph Klein was bullying Liberal MLA, Laurie Blakeman, and kept on saying, “Are you calling me a liar?” Ralph Klein also threw a Liberal health policy booklet at a Legislature page. It is so baffling as to how, and why Albertans praised Ralph Klein. Ralph Klein did so many guffaws and stupid moves, that put his political career at risk. He had to look for a way to make Albertans ignore it. That’s likely why the $400 cheques were issued. Those cheques were a bonafide waste of money, and were another drain on Alberta’s volatile revenue streams. Actually, they were a form of voter bribery, the same thing Albertans still criticize the federal government for doing. Come to think of it, it was 20 years ago, where Albertans who were old enough to have a driver’s license, (that age is 16 in Alberta), got a couple of surprises in the mail, that coincided with the provincial election that was to follow. They got two cheques for $160. These I think were to offset the high costs of natural gas, that was deregulated, along with the rest of the utilities in Alberta. That was the most cunning pre-election ploy. Once the provincial election was over, there were no more cheques issued. The results were that Ralph Klein and his PC government ended up with the biggest majority government they ever had, before, or after. One political columnist correctly pointed out in the 2005 provincial election, Ralph Klein and the PCs did win as many seats as they did in 2001, because there were no cheques given. The damage Ralph Klein did, still can be seen and felt today. Still, there are people who think Ralph Klein was so good, when he wasn’t. Peter Lougheed was one who had a disdain for what Ralph Klein was doing, and rightfully so.

      Reply
      • David Grant

        March 31st, 2021

        Thanks Anonymous for your further explanation to my earlier reply. You are definitely right about his other policies. I have on final point to say about Ralph’s legacy and that is he spent his last time on earth in the best senior care places that could hope for. He had the means and he was able to get the best while many other families had to live with the substandard care. I don’t think we need to have anymore sympathy for this man other than for the fact that he was stricken with Parkinson’s. This doesn’t mean that we are mean-spirited or hard hearted it is just that we need to have an honest assessment of his legacy rather than the celebratory one that we get from the likes of the Calgary School, the Fraser and CD Howe Institutes, the School of Public Policy, and the Southam and Sun News chains.

        Reply
  16. Alan K . Spiller

    March 30th, 2021

    Great comments guys you have certainly described Ralph Klein properly. We are in this “Horrific Mess “ as Lougheed called it, when Klein retired, yet we still hear these ignorant seniors singing his praises, just too dumb to understand what he did to them.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      March 31st, 2021

      ALAN K . SPILLER: I know. I do recall seniors praising Ralph Klein, among them were some of my own aunts, and even one of my uncles. They were saying how good he was. My own dad, also a senior, knew Ralph Klein was cunning. My dad brought up to me the provincial election from 2001. At that time, my father said to me about how Ralph Klein cleverly got re-elected. Perfect timing for those $160 cheques. When the election was over, there were no more cheques issued. For the life of me, I cannot see how people think Ralph Klein was so good. I just can’t. We can even take a simple thing, such as our utility bills. Look at what we are paying for. For example, we can see our electricity bill. We are strapped with all these costly added on charges, that we would still be paying for, if we weren’t using any power. I have heard that Peter Lougheed MLAs were saying that deregulation of utilities in Alberta was a very dumb move, and they were right. Now look at what the UCP are doing to our doctors and other medical professionals in Alberta. They want to replicate what Ralph Klein was trying to achieve, and have private for profit health care in Alberta. What’s really bad is the people who write to the newspapers in our major cities in Alberta, and they praise the UCP. They blame the NDP or Justin Trudeau for what the UCP has done. They also praise Ralph Klein. It is so absurd.

      Reply

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