Ralph Klein, RIP

Blog, Marco Navarro-Genie, Role of Government

Ralph Klein, Alberta’s 12th premier, passed away yesterday.

I met Ralph Klein tree times. Every single one of those times I met him, it was in an elevator at the then Norcen Tower in Calgary.  He would cross the street from the premier’s office in Calgary to Norcen’s fitness centre during the lunch hour.  Every time I saw him there, he was alone. No guards, no fawning aides, no entourage. Unassuming and unpretentious. He was always quick with a smile and a hello. Klein could laugh at himself, and though he took his job as Alberta premier seriously, he rarely took himself so serious that he couldn’t smile.

Klein was a phenomenon onto himself.  He was a rare political communicator, even when you count the odd gaffe here and there.  It isn’t, as it has been suggested, that Alberta journalists gave him too many breaks.  It’s more that outsiders didn’t get him, as Cosh points out; they didn’t get his brand of politics and his common touch.

Friends in other provinces used to ask me often about the “secret” of Ralph’s popularity.  They rarely wanted me to tell them about setting Alberta’s fiscal house in order, or the privatization of Alberta’s Liquor Board, or  his plans to reform healthcare.  They wanted to know if Ralph was “for real.”

Ralph Klein celebrates retiring Alberta's provincial debt Ralph Klein celebrates retiring Alberta’s provincial debt

To a Montreal friend, I explained that if any one wanted to speak to Premier Bourassa at the time, one would have to go to the premier’s office at the Hydro-Quebec building in Montreal and try to get an appointment.  Try! If the regular citizen got past security, presented her case to speak to the premier, they might give her an appointment –six months to a year later once the security check came in.

In Alberta, if anyone wanted to talk to Ralph, all one had to do was go to the bar where he liked to drink, and if one was lucky Ralph might buy one a beer.

Ralph was accessible, Ralph was candid.  He understood that political power comes from the support and opinions of real people on the street.  “You find out which way the parade is going, and you get in front of it.” Others didn’t get it. His main opponent for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in the early 1990’s was a professional, urbane, “progressive,” articulate, sophisticated and good looking woman named Nancy Betkowski.  She seemed to me a sort of Alison Redford without the law degree. Betkowski was visibly shocked to see that party members chose Ralph over her. Her greatest mistake was pridefully to think, looking at Ralph, that her victory was granted.

Many today will speak and write about Ralph’s accomplishments on the debt and deficit in Alberta. But the greatest yet unlearned lesson of Klein’s political life is that a regular citizen can make a difference.  Klein stands out in an age in which more and more people believe that politics is for the patrician few.  A beat reporter who hadn’t finished high school went on to become the mayor of a rising city,  premier of a rising province, and the most successful Canadian premier of his time. His own life and political example is Klein’s greatest lesson.

No doubt as a result of being in front of TV cameras for a living, Ralph had the ability to appear natural in front of them, even when scripted.  He made prepared statements seem extemporaneous. A great deal of it was because of who and how he was: genuine and unreserved.  Where many politicians looked to TV as a means to portray a crafted image of themselves, Ralph largely used it to show who he was.

Not universally loved, Ralph had his detractors, to be sure.  Some of them displayed palpable hatred toward him. But it seemed that the more the core detractors attacked him and poured their hatred on him, the better Klein fared with the public and the more popular he was.  The secret, if there was one, was that Klein didn’t cut and run from his mistakes. At a time when a gaffe-prone prime minister in Ottawa manhandled a protesting man on the street and threw him to the ground, often hid form cameras and refused to accept his mistakes (and still does), Ralph always acknowledged them and dealt with them directly.

It was almost as though Klein was able to remind folks that we are all fallen creatures, and that we are measured not by the mistakes we make but by how we handle them. One could typically count on Ralph handling his mistakes with some humour and a bit of humility.  His humour is now punctuated by the absence of it at the premier’s office.

King Ralph is dead.  Long live King Ralph! The Tory party replaced him, to be sure, but has been unable to fill his shoes.  Two consecutive successors remind us how extraordinary a politician Ralph Klein truly was and have forced us to miss him constantly before his passing.  The farmer boots and the lawyer high heels are not Ralph’s shoes.