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Ralph Klein’s Real Legacy

Forget debt-slashing. The premier’s greatest achievement is a one-party state so deeply entrenched that it may never be dislodged.

By Frank Dabbs

His critics may tell you that Ralph Klein, the 12th premier of Alberta, has done nothing much since winning his fourth general election. A little golf, a little fishing, receiving the Queen during the province’s half-hearted centennial celebrations, deigning to attend vacuous sittings of the legislature. Slouching toward his place in some bucolic corner of history.

Not so.

His supporters may tell you that his legacy is a new fiscal order without government debts and deficits.

Not so.

It was, in fact, Klein’s predecessor, Don Getty, who framed and launched Alberta’s fiscal revolution. In the aftermath of extremely low oil and gas prices in the mid-eighties, Getty slashed public spending on social programs. When he was invested into the Alberta Order of Excellence in 1999, his citation noted that he “began the process of fiscal restraint in difficult economic times.”

In an April 2006 Edmonton Journal interview, Getty said, “(Klein) continued what we were doing. The debt and deficit was solved by God. Or Mother Nature, maybe. It was the price of oil, not any special creation.”

So what is Ralph Klein’s legacy? Nothing less than a total transformation of how Albertans are governed.

Since November 22, 2004, when his government was re-elected handily in spite of a desultory campaign, Klein has consolidated the unwritten constitutional framework for a workable one-party state, now so deeply entrenched in Alberta’s economy and political culture that it may never be dislodged. He has completed the creation of the first functional post-democratic government in North America, run by elites for elites—with the citizenry left on political standby to profit from a predatory economy if it can, and otherwise to fend for itself.

What is more breathtaking is that this constitutional coup d’état has taken place within the framework of the law, without the need of a secret midnight cabal, and is accepted (or at least acquiesced to) as one more Alberta Advantage.

Before I go any further, allow me to declare my small role in the political careers and events I write about here. I have had a civil relationship with Ralph Klein as a colleague in journalism, and I am his unauthorized biographer. I volunteered on the Liberal Party’s 2004 campaign, in leader Kevin Taft’s headquarters. I wrote an unauthorized biography of Preston Manning and later assisted him with the biographical chapters of his most recent book, Think Big. I enjoy their company and wish that political culture were less polarized, so that friendly contacts could be maintained across philosophical lines.

Historically, Alberta has had a frail experience of democracy. From 1670 to 1870, under the Royal Charter for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Alberta was part of the least democratic locale in the British Imperium. Here, the Company was bigger than the Monarchy. When Canadian writer Agnes Deans Cameron visited Athabasca Landing in 1905, she found a Sunday school class with this addition to the catechism:

“What are the two greatest things on earth?”

“The Queen and the Company.”

“And of those, which is the greater?”

“The Company. The Queen sometimes dies, but the Company never dies.”

When Alberta was carved out of the North West Territories, its Autonomy Act constrained the development of a vigorous legislative democracy. Ottawa withheld jurisdiction over natural resources, so the province received no revenues from timber, coal or oil. In the days before income tax, this rendered Alberta dependent upon federal subsidies. The province could not develop its own economic infrastructure because it had no Crown land to set aside for roads and railways, nor could it deal directly with homesteaders. So Alberta defaulted to one-party government, the chief task of which was to battle the federal government.

Alberta’s first two regime changes, in 1921 to the United Farmers and in 1935 to Social Credit, were led by men who did not think they needed to be in the legislature: Henry Wise Wood and William Aberhart.

Wise Wood refused ever to run in an election or by-election. He thought that the legislature was no more than a glorified city council and that it might work better if MLAs were elected from interest groups—such as labour, farmers and business— and not as candidates of political parties. The United Farmers’ interest in direct democracy (recall, referendum, plebiscites and an executive council with representation from all parties in the legislature), coupled with Wise Wood’s unelected and shadowy influence on the government caucus and cabinet, foreshadowed Klein’s repudiation of the legislature.

Aberhart won a by-election after his party won government, but he chaired an executive-council government and sent Ernest Manning to function as his proxy in the legislature, seldom appearing there himself. The revolts that he faced within his party, not the debates in the legislature, were the defining democratic processes of his office.

When Manning became premier, he consolidated the premier’s supremacy by holding multiple portfolios as a one-man super-cabinet. He declined to produce a Hansard. He “constitutionalized” the Social Credit Party as a part of government by promoting its head, Orvis Kennedy, to de facto personal deputy minister. Famously, Kennedy and he selected his first cabinet, without having consulted anyone, as they nailed shingles to the roof of Manning’s dairy barn.

The first Conservative premier, Peter Lougheed, faced a new dynamic: an opposition too small to play an effective role. He respected the legislature and instituted a Hansard, but he kept power centralized in the premier’s office and consolidated it with new techniques of public opinion and media management, including a Public Affairs Bureau, which has grown into the largest public relations office in the province—and is distastefully propagandistic.

As the opposition’s functionality atrophied, Lougheed came to rely on strong, effective deputy ministers as a non-partisan counterweight to cabinet and caucus. More than anything else, what preserved the spirit of democracy during the Lougheed years was his integrity and the moderation of his policies. Liberals ruefully joked that the reason Albertans didn’t vote for them was that Alberta already had a “liberal” government.

Don Getty’s tenure is notable for the warmth he accorded to his opponents. He had an instinctive respect for the provincial legislature and for the role of opposition parties. Famously, he enjoyed the company of Liberal opposition leader Laurence Decore, and the two had a civil, even warm, working relationship.

There is a divide of geological proportions between Getty’s idea of democracy and Ralph Klein’s. After Klein was sworn in as premier on December 14, 1992, and as his economic and social policies swerved sharply to the right, Klein severed the Legislative Assembly from the legislative process. Indicative of the sea change was his annual televised chat with Albertans, which immediately became more important than the Speech from the Throne.

More significantly, the tone of politics coarsened. While still mayor of Calgary, Klein had looked into the possibility of leading the Liberal party. But once he was recruited as a Conservative cabinet minister in 1989, the publicly affable “just call me Ralph” became scathing in his denunciation of Liberals and social democrats, granting his opponents no quarter on any field of battle. Having served his political apprenticeship in municipal politics, which has no parliamentary tradition and no party lines, Klein came to the provincial legislature with no respect for the Canadian tradition of representative, responsible government. He showed little civility toward opposition members of the legislature and scant respect for their constitutional office.

After the 2004 election, government MLAs were given heavy gold rings, graduation-style, denoting their elected office and paid for by the public. Opposition MLAs were given no rings, even though they are elected to the same office and sit in the same legislature. The opposition might take comfort in its better taste in jewellery, but those rings reveal a caste system, nurtured by Klein, that taunts centuries of hard-won parliamentary tradition.

During the centennial celebration in 2005, all MLAs were given medals to present to notable constituents. Conservative MLAs were granted the use of Government House—a public facility—as a venue to make the formal presentations. When Liberal MLAs applied to use it, they were denied permission. Such humiliations may seem petty, but they exemplify a dangerous petulance toward the elected opposition, and a post-democratic frame of mind.

At the centre of the post-democratic order is the Conservative Party, which celebrates its 35th anniversary as the governing party on September 10 this year. Nine days before Albertans went to the polls in 2004, Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thompson wrote: “Forget the provincial election campaign. There’s only one political race that counts in Alberta and it has little to do with the November 22 vote… The Tory leadership race is the one to watch, the one that will do more to determine the future of a post-debt Alberta than this all-over-but-the-counting election.”

Membership in the Conservative Party is a matter of self-interest for anyone seeking full opportunity and a full role in civic life in Alberta; the consequences of membership in an opposition party can be punitive, both socially and professionally.

In Alberta’s post-democracy, general elections do not produce responsible, representative government in the Canadian tradition, which evolved from the 1837 rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada and was solidified at Confederation. This protracted and sometimes bloody process produced three fundamentals: elected, representative legislatures would be responsible for law, taxes, public expenditure and debate on public issues; there would be no elites whose votes and voices counted for more than other citizens’; legislatures would be adversarial, with government challenged by an effective Opposition loyal to the monarch and the people.

Opposition in Alberta is excessively fragmented. In the general election of 2004, 10 opposition parties ran 367 candidates for 83 seats. Government is routinely elected with a minority of the popular vote, yet gains an overwhelming majority of the seats. This has happened 12 times in 26 general elections.

Voter participation has eroded steadily since 1935, when it peaked at an 82 per cent turnout; by 2004 it was down to 44.7 per cent. As the popular vote declines, elections become more ceremonial and less significant to the exercise of power.

Opposition parties are no longer able to develop the financial and organizational infrastructure to function effectively and mount serious electoral challenges. The Conservative Party recruits the cream of professional political managers and electoral candidates. The opposition parties are starved for funds; for instance, the Liberal Party—the traditional official opposition of the 20th century—incurred a $1-million debt in the 2001 provincial election, and has been crippled by it since.

In post-democratic Alberta, the opposition has no meaningful role in the legislative process because the legislature’s committees function like committees of the Conservative caucus. Opposition members attend them only at the pleasure of the government and never participate in votes unless the Tories wish it. This means opposition MLAs are excluded from effective participation in debating and amending bills on second reading. They are denied the policy inquiry and review opportunities that legislative standing committees normally enjoy in the British parliamentary model. This practice is partly the outcome of decades in which there were not enough opposition members of the Legislative Assembly to participate in all committees, but it has become a feature of the process that cements the power of the incumbent party.

In the absence of an effective, representative, responsible legislature, new mechanisms have evolved to carry out policy scrutiny, development and review.

When the production of natural gas from coalbeds created a firestorm of opposition from rural and environmental activists, the government established an elaborate public consultation process called the “multi-stakeholder advisory committee” (MAC). The government named representatives from its choice of “a broad range of stakeholder groups,” including environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute, political organizations like the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts & Counties, and commercial interests including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The MAC also included the Alberta Energy & Utilities Board (EUB) and four ministries—Agriculture, Energy, Environment and Community Development.

After conducting a review of government regulations and policies, the MAC made recommendations to government ministries and departments for legislation, regulation and public administration to “balance resource development with environmental protection and minimize the impact on landowners of coalbed methane development.”

The Klein government has inaugurated a similar process for oil sands policy that will institutionalize this post-democratic process for policy review and change. All of this is properly the work of elected and accountable politicians. It involves public policy and government performance that should be debated in the legislature.

In a parallel trend that shields the government from controversy, public engagement on conflicts over energy production has been downloaded to the supposedly independent EUB—the quasi-judicial agency that adjudicates, regulates and studies the province’s fossil fuel and electricity operations to ensure the public interest is served. In this decade, the board inaugurated the sour gas and public safety working group to address changes to sour gas regulations and operations, and was called upon to make the choice between producing shallow natural gas or the underlying bitumen on overlapping oil sands and gas leases in northeastern Alberta. This was properly the work of the legislature, and doing it compromised the EUB’s reputation for impartiality and service to the public interest.

Meanwhile, deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers are treated as butlers-on-call for the Conservative caucus. They are asked to spend hours helping government MLAs with pet projects and to act as public buffers for the political ministers, rather than as the advisors to and executors of ministerial decisions. A new layer of political professionals has displaced the advisory function. The controversial contracts associated with these consultants are designed to conceal their work from public scrutiny.

Klein has also reined in the municipalities, school boards and regional health authorities, where opposition thrives and politicians learn their trade. The election of regional health authority board members was so repellent to his post-democratic practices that the elections were rescinded and the boards replaced.

The machinery of one-party, post-democratic politics includes the influence of partisan political processes. While Klein was still mayor of Calgary, a close-knit circle was incorporated as the Friends of Ralph Klein (FORK). This informal caucus of trusted campaign volunteers and personal friends grew to include some of his cabinet and caucus, party financiers, donors and opinion leaders. It became the most exclusive political community in Alberta, and still plays a shadowy role in policy, patronage and political access.

Because post-democracy has emerged during one of the province’s periodic oil and natural gas booms, it has been defined as “successful” in the narrow terms of economic growth and prosperity. Affluence has sugar-coated the pill for those who might otherwise challenge the new order but are prepared to mute their political sensibilities.

There are constraints and limits to Alberta’s unwritten constitution. Public expectations are shaped by the 21st-century milieu of the Internet, global mobility, cultural interface with other Western democracies, and the prosperity Alberta has gained from the global economy. Alberta also exists within a federal system in which constitutional power is divided, so that criminal law, important taxation powers, international trade, foreign affairs and the military are out of the province’s reach.

Klein’s political creature is not quite a plutocracy, not quite an oligarchy, not quite an autocracy and not quite a Canadian Family Compact. Neither is it quite a democracy. Liberal Opposition Leader Kevin Taft argues that “Klein’s idea of government isn’t just process, it’s a series of habits, a political culture and a set of entitlements that has become entrenched.”

As political economist Gordon Laxer wrote last year in the Parkland Post, published by the Parkland Institute, “Real democracy requires the idea of the good of the community. Real democracy challenges, indiscriminately and irreverently, all forms of privilege. In Alberta, people are no longer portrayed as citizens and wage earners in a democratic community. They are now consumers, investors and stakeholders, acting as individuals in the private marketplace. Everything public is discredited.”

Alberta retains some fundamental freedoms, such as property rights. It advocates personal opportunity, offers public education and an equitable tax system, and doesn’t throw its opponents into jail. Yet those democratic forms are vulnerable. Important rights are eroding: sexual orientation, access to government information, the freedom to participate in politics. Prerogatives of citizenship such as economic opportunity and access to education and equitable health care have been repositioned as privileges for emerging elites.

Can the triumph of post-democratic government in Alberta be reversed?

Opposition politicians think the ground is shifting. Historically in Alberta, changes of government have arisen from elections in which many parties step forward as alternatives: eight in 1921, 12 in 1935, nine in 1967 when Ernest Manning’s tenure seemed to have run its course, and five in 1971 when Social Credit was finally thrown out. The 2004 election campaign saw three opposition parties—Liberal, New Democrat and Alliance—field candidates in all 83 ridings. Two others, Social Credit and the Greens, nominated 42 and 49 candidates respectively, and five splinter parties ran a total of 28 candidates.

Preston Manning, who restored prairie populism to national politics, thinks that the Conservative Party’s stranglehold on Alberta is ending. A self-described “frontier scout” exploring the leading edge of political change, he has founded the Manning Centre for Building Democracy to fulfill the vision of a society that is both democratic and guided by conservative principles. He thinks the door is open in Alberta for a new party to ride a wave in public opinion—such as environmentalism— into power.

Leading journalists agree that change is in the wind. Calgary Herald political columnist Tom Olsen, who is sympathetic to the Conservative government, has said privately that the Liberals could displace it over the next two elections. Even if the Conservatives survive their leadership process, it’s an open question whether they could survive a focused, competitive two- or three-party electoral process.

Which raises two questions: Is Alberta just one great opposition party away from the restoration of democracy? And what will the Conservatives do to keep that from happening?

Frank Dabbs is the author of Ralph Klein: A Maverick Life and Preston Manning: The Roots of Reform.

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