Anyway you dice it, the legacy of Ralph Klein will be in essence divisive, but on the surface one can't help but admire the man who sadly passed away yesterday at the age 70. He helped usher in a new era of western Canadian leadership and was one of Alberta's strongest and most steadfast spokespeople. That, naturally, sometimes got him into trouble in the short term, but Klein's impact as Calgary mayor, Alberta premier and leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives will be long felt.
But let us not turn this into a recital of the man's gaffs, although they were plentiful and can all be easily found with five seconds of searching on the internet. The reality was that an Alberta led by Klein swaggered, refusing to be the red-headed child of Canada anymore. That wasn't necessarily how people in the east thought of the province, or continue to think of it, but Klein's Alberta wouldn't tolerate disrespect.
Klein came of political age at a unique time in his province, the oil-led boom in Calgary coincided with his terms as Mayor, as did the 1988 Winter Olympics in the city. When he became PC leader in the early 90s, it looked like the conservative dynasty in Alberta was all but over, the Liberals held a convincing lead in the polls after the PCs allowed Alberta's debt to rise, and was perceived as having too heavy a hand in the province's private sector. Klein snaked the Liberal stand and promised quick action on reducing the debt and getting government "out of the business of business," and he sailed to victory in the election of '92.
Klein's popularity continued to rise as he went about an aggressive program of government cuts to get Alberta's financial house in order. To do it, the arts and healthcare were the hardest hit, nurses were laid off and hospitals were literally demolished, but the cost-cutting would pay off, Alberta's balance sheet started going the other way, and Klein's popularity only went higher. It's safe to say that "King Ralph's" success in wildrose province was in no-small way an inspiration for Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution in 1995.
But all good things must come to an end, and just as Klein achieved his goal for a debt-free Alberta, it seemed that his time as that province's leader was up. A long string of unprecedented success and the desire for fresh blood may have been enough to sink Klein, but the growing obviousness of his drinking problems - no doubt the cause of some of his his media flubs - was also a factor. But since time heals all wounds, the Klein that died today is being remembered more as a statesman than a punchline, but either way it's his legacy that will be most interesting to watch over the next couple of years.
Why? Don't let the hype fool you, Alberta still has money issues. Given that we live in Ontario and are not exactly invested in the day-to-day affairs of a province on the opposite side of the country, you may not know that as it stands right now the banner days are over for Alberta. Or at least stalled. With oil prices down, and big question marks surrounding the future timetable of a pipeline project, Alberta is struggling to keep cash in the provincial money folds. Some are pushing for a provincial income tax, a very un-Kleinian measure to be sure. And with the Wildrose Party nipping at the PCs' heels there's not much room for miscalculation if that party wants to keep its presumptive right to lead in Alberta.
So as much as people maybe saddened by the loss of Klein, it's Alberta's immediate future that poses much bigger and much more difficult to answer questions than just what kind of impact the former premier had. Yes, he changed the province, but the change isn't over.