Martha and Henry Retire

The end of Ralph Klein's "severely normal" master narrative.

By Sheila Pratt

Martha and Henry sat down in the family room to watch the local news, as they did most nights. It was early 2009, the late stages of winter, and oil prices were staying stubbornly low. That wasn’t supposed to happen in the land of the never-ending boom. It was enough to make even these true-blue Albertans begin to wonder about the promise of perpetual petro-prosperity.

MARTHA: “Can you believe it, Henry? Oil is still down. Just last summer it was $147 a barrel; now it’s $40. Companies are delaying their projects in Fort Mac. And all the big upgraders—you know, the ones supposed to keep the jobs here instead of shipping them down the pipeline? Well, six of seven are postponed and who knows if they’ll ever go ahead. If this boom does go bad, I wonder, Henry—what have we got to fall back on?”

HENRY: “Just be patient, Martha, and let the market prevail. When oil companies need our help, they’ll let us know. And you can count on the Conservatives to help, that’s for sure. As Ralph always said, what’s good for big oil is good for us, right?”

MARTHA: “Yes, but Henry… remember the last boom, in the 1980s? When that one went bust, we lost our house. Now I’m starting to wonder. The government has hardly saved a cent and we still don’t have enough hospitals. Yet Ed Stelmach is talking about cutbacks. I can’t help but think of that bumper sticker: ‘Please God give us another boom and we promise not to piss it away this time.’ Have we frittered this one away too?”

HENRY: “Well, Martha, when we hit rock bottom last time, we still had big government, an obsession with the public interest—a provincial housing corporation, for heaven’s sake!—and tuition so low that young people didn’t appreciate their education. Those were the bad old days, and we’ll never make those mistakes again. It’s true Ralph didn’t save much, but we both got our $400 cheque—our fair share. It’s not perfect, Martha, but nothing ever is. We’ll just hunker down, ride it out and trust that Steady Eddie knows what’s best.” 

Martha and Henry, that unfailingly polite and ubiquitous couple created by former Premier Ralph Klein, have been the starring characters in Alberta’s political narrative for 15 years. As authentic as the wild rose, as down to earth as the Ponoka rodeo and as steady as the pumpjack in the back forty pulling up oily riches, Martha and Henry were, in Ralph’s world, a stand-in for all Albertans. “Their last name could have been ‘Alberta,’ ” notes Peter McCormick, a University of Lethbridge political scientist.

The Martha and Henry story was so potent because it fit like a glove with Klein’s man-on-the-street leadership style. It also proved to be a highly successful political strategy for the Conservatives, keeping a veneer of populism on the corporate-friendly, business-oriented agenda of the Klein revolution. But its impact runs deeper. Fifteen years of Martha and Henry mythology had a profound impact on the political culture—papering over major cleavages in Alberta society, stifling independent voices and reinforcing a culture of conformity in the province, which in turn undermined the multi-party system. Mythical Martha and Henry had a particularly corrosive and stifling effect on Alberta’s democratic ethic.

But after years of good service to the one-party state, the fabled couple is headed for retirement. Klein’s successor Ed Stelmach, with his quiet, low-key style, sells a very different political story, one with a more corporate hue. Stelmach is running Alberta Inc. with a discreet and unobtrusive board of directors in cabinet who keep the pliable and uninformed shareholders—the voters—firmly outside the executive suite while the board gets on with things. The government’s signature so far is a series of vague 20-year plans, and Martha and Henry realize they aren’t big players in that bureaucratic drama. And their downhome ways and worries are out of sync in an era of unavoidable international climate politics.

As the story goes, Martha and Henry hail from small-town Alberta—Rimbey, to be specific. But they actually first appeared in Calgary when Ralph Klein won an upset victory for the mayor’s chair over business candidate Ross Alger. “It started at his first speech at the Chamber of Commerce,” recalls Rod Love, Klein’s chief adviser in that 1980 civic election and his right-hand man for decades. “Ralph walked in to the crowd of blue suits and said: ‘Thank you to everyone here who helped put me in office. Unfortunately, none of them will hear this because they are in the kitchen.’ That was the first reference to Martha and Henry.” A decade later, Klein brought the couple with him “when he went north,” says Love. When Klein became premier in 1992, Martha and Henry moved to centre stage—a middle-aged, hard-working couple who earned a decent income (but not too big), who were suspicious of big cities, proud of their community and not interested in theatre. They embodied old-fashioned values—respect for authority, and stoicism in the hard times that Klein said had to be faced in the 1990s. Accepting and loyal, Martha and Henry also believed that Alberta was one big family, and this family did not wash its dirty linen in public. If there were any disagreements, they would be worked out behind the closed doors of the Tory caucus. 

In 1994, the Klein revolution rolled out its campaign to slay the deficit, cut jobs, privatize public services and downsize government. It was an agenda tailor-made for the corporate towers and chambers of commerce. But the imagery of Martha and Henry doing their share to slay the debt made it seem like Klein was running the government on behalf of you and your neighbour—not the captains of industry pushing for tax cuts or the party’s right-wing ideologues importing New Zealand’s experiment in “re-engineering government.”

Martha and Henry were also useful to marginalize dissenters or isolate citizens hurt by the cutbacks. Media reports of people who complained about losing their jobs, the closure of hospital beds or cuts to welfare rates were dismissed by Klein as “victim of the week” stories. To protest the cuts was a symptom of personal weakness, not bad policy. Martha and Henry, above all, were not whiners and complainers. They understood you had to sacrifice for the greater good, take responsibility for your own life and get on with a leaner and meaner existence—just learn to live with it. (The fact that the government was showing surpluses by its second budget in 1995 went right past them.)

Martha and Henry were not complainers. To protest was a symptom of personal weakness.

Martha and Henry also functioned to paper over the diversity of the province. Klein often referred to his favourite couple as “severely normal Albertans,” the kind of deserving people to whom his government catered. To be anyone else, by definition, was abnormal or un-Albertan, and that included a lot of people—arts-loving urbanites, ethnic minorities, upwardly mobile professionals, environmentalists, the working poor, Aboriginals, soccer moms worried about their kids’ class sizes, students, academics, union members and seniors on fixed incomes. If these people didn’t see themselves or their hopes for the province reflected in Martha and Henry’s image, well, they were abnormal—and that was their problem, not the government’s.

Parts of rural Alberta, rock-solid Tory country, identified most readily with Martha and Henry, such that the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties was able to call a major 1998 report on rural government “Serving Martha and Henry.” In urban Alberta, reaction was mixed. Many acquiesced, thought the narrative was harmless, or connected to the simplicity of Martha and Henry’s drama. Others shrugged and disengaged from the story. By early 2000, indifference grew to irritation, especially among groups on the left. In an effort to get some traction, unions and social justice groups decided to enlist Martha and Henry to their causes. They posted blogs highlighting Martha and Henry struggling to survive on minimum wage, showing up at the food bank and looking for daycare. In the 2004 election, the New Democrats used the couple to ask Klein tough questions in their campaign literature: “Martha and Henry speak to Premier Klein.” But these attempts to redeploy the narrative had limited success. Martha and Henry were closely identified with Klein and they weren’t a convincing voice for anyone else.

With the help of Martha and Henry, Klein entrenched the long-standing Tory theme of Alberta as “one big family” and that to be outside the family circle was a cold, lonely place. He wasn’t the first Alberta politician to play the you’re-with-us-or-against-us card. In the 1970s, Premier Peter Lougheed divided Albertans into “doers” (Progressive Conservatives) and “knockers” (opposition parties). His 1982 election speech to a Grande Prairie audience was typical: “What’s at choice is between ‘knockers,’ who think negatively, and ‘doers,’ who are positive.” The two storylines carry the same underlying premise—that there’s one right way to be an Albertan, and if you don’t like it, you’re out. In other words, the key fault line in Alberta politics becomes not what you think about any issue or where you stand on a policy or your vision, but rather whether you’re part of the family or not; whether you’re inside or out. That doesn’t leave much room for vigorous public debate or the emergence of a healthy multi-party system. But it’s a great way to maintain one party’s grip on the province, and Klein took this idea much further than his predecessors.

In the Lougheed era, the province was enlightened enough to allow for independent voices and a degree of community agency. School boards had taxation powers, bargained with their teachers and spoke for parents. Mayors and reeves were regularly consulted. Local hospital boards were a pillar of every town. Universities had a large degree of independence and their own individual voices before the days of Campus Alberta.

The EUB spy scandal of 2007 gave Martha and Henry a taste of what had become of citizen’s rights.

Much less tolerant of dissent, the Klein government brought most of these institutions into line. Klein disbanded local hospital boards. School boards lost taxation powers and ultimately their voices. In the mid-1990s, the province dismissed the Calgary public school board, sending a clear signal about who was boss in Ralph’s world. In 2002, the Edmonton public school board got its comeuppance for daring to speak out after the 2001 teachers strike. Board chairman Don Fleming had the temerity to warn the public that teachers would be laid off after the province refused to help boards meet the new payroll. Education Minister Lyle Oberg struck back, sending in the auditors.

Perhaps the ultimate signal of how far the Klein government would go to keep everyone in line came in May 2004. Education Minister Oberg demanded that Alberta’s four university presidents write public letters supporting Klein after he was caught in a plagiarism controversy for an essay he wrote as part of his communications degree at Athabasca University. All four letters ran in Alberta newspapers.

A few years later, in May 2007, real-life Marthas and Henrys—rural landowners, farmers and Rimbey townsfolk—got a taste of what had become of citizens’ rights, their rights, in Tory Alberta. They headed down to the Rimbey courthouse to sit in on a hearing for a controversial new transmission line from Edmonton to Calgary. The tension was high as many of the Marthas and Henrys who crowded into the meeting were strongly opposed to the new line that would cut through area farms. They wanted their say. They expected to be listened to. But that night on the news, Martha and Henry were shocked to hear that the Energy & Utilities Board running the hearing had hired private agents to spy on the landowners who’d dared voice opposition. What a jolt. These bedrock Klein supporters had gone along with the premier, accepting on faith that his ideology of getting government out of the way, including out of the electricity business, was best for everyone. But nobody told them that smaller government would also mean less input for them, ordinary citizens, into major issues affecting their lives.

The EUB makes all its decisions “in the public interest,” but always with a very restrictive view of “the public” at any specific hearing. Only those with a “direct interest”—i.e., those who live near a proposed power line or within a set distance from a proposed well—have standing. This narrow definition of public interest began to show up elsewhere in Klein’s Alberta. As the civil service shrank, Klein began handing more and more policy work over to a new vehicle, the multi-stakeholder committee. From water policy to wildlife protection to pollution in the oil sands, contentious issues were given to hand-picked groups of “stakeholders” representing special interest groups, oil companies, environmental lobby groups, experts in the field and business interests. Being a concerned citizen didn’t qualify you for much of anything or get you a seat at these elite tables that brokered powerful interests and public policy. In a fundamental sense, as government shrank and relinquished its role in public policy, the old-fashioned democratic notions of public interest and citizenship got privatized, too.  

Martha and Henry did have their moments of independence. Each time Klein pushed for his “third-way” health reforms, a two-tier private system, they successfully pushed back. “Klein never got Martha and Henry on side for that,” says Love.


Martha and Henry, in better days.

Diehard conservative loyalists, Martha and Henry played a key role in Ed Stelmach’s first victory in March 2008. The Conservatives won big—72 of 83 seats—even though most Albertans (60 per cent) stayed home. Stelmach captured half the popular vote, but his victory rested on the support of only one in five eligible voters. Neither the PCs nor the opposition parties engaged thousands of middle-of-the-road people. 

Since the election, Martha and Henry have moved off the mainstage. Stelmach, personable and unpretentious, is not a populist playing to the crowds. The farmer and small businessman from Andrew was elected to move government out of Calgary’s corporate towers. Ironically, he’s running the show like an elusive CEO, too busy for much chit-chat on Main Street. In his first days in office, Stelmach sent out mandate letters to his ministers setting out goals and instructions. A Stelmach innovation, the letters were a quick, strategic way to make a point—this is no longer government on autopilot; there are plans to be made and work to be done; get on with the job. As a piece of seminal political script from the new man at the top, the mandate letters were at least public, though hardly warm and fuzzy. 

If Martha and Henry were Klein’s touchstone, the new government prefers the private sector. The heroes emerging in Stelmach’s Alberta are business executives deemed to do just about everything better than the public sector, from building roads to running health care. (It’s an assumption the government might want to reconsider soon, given that the current economic downturn started from a self-induced credit crisis.) Stelmach’s Alberta Inc. is handing even more traditional government work to the private sector in ambitious public-private partnerships (P3s), starting with the construction of Edmonton’s Anthony Henday Drive and the province’s 32 new schools. More recently, Stelmach called for a P3 to take on the traditional municipal task of planning a new subdivision for Fort McMurray. Healthcare is the next front for private-sector expertise. Health Minister Ron Liepert makes no secret of his view that the top-echelon CEOs on his new Health Services “superboard” are better equipped to run the healthcare system than civil servants. 

With Barack Obama in the White House, a Nobel laureate running US climate change policy and the oil sands firmly in the international spotlight, a new and sophisticated Alberta narrative is certainly in order. Martha and Henry’s story only ever reflected one slice of this complex, dynamic and diverse province. The premier put $25-million into a provincial “rebranding” exercise and gave the job to the Public Affairs Bureau (PAB) and Edmonton PR firm Calder Bateman. Roxanna Benoit, director of the PAB, says there will be room for many voices in the new narrative. Diversity, a can-do attitude and innovation will be part of the mix. The province’s new “brand,” “Freedom To Create. Spirit To Achieve” was unveiled in late March. It remains to be seen what the rest of the new story will be.

No wonder Martha and Henry are feeling a little fragile as they sit down for tea in the family room to contemplate the future. They know they’ll never cut it as high pressure oil sands salespeople in Washington.

MARTHA: “It’s so quiet these days. I tell you, Henry, it makes me a bit nervous. At least with Ralph, we knew what he was up to, mostly. With Ed, it’s not so clear. If Ed sent us a mandate letter, I think I know what he’d say. He’d say: ‘Thanks for the help in the election, we’ll take it from here.’ ”

HENRY: “Well, that suits us these days. We can just get on with our lives, y’know, getting ready to retire. That’s what most people are doing, just as Ralph suggested.”

MARTHA: “But Henry… isn’t that taking us for granted? We’ll always be Conservative, of course, it’s in our bones. But maybe we’ve been too nice. Maybe we should rock the boat a bit.”

HENRY: “Maybe not, Martha. And it’s too late for us anyway. Since we’re almost done here, maybe we should just take our money and head out to BC. Like the oilpatch folks say, it’s an extraction economy here, Martha, that’s what it is now. You just have to know when to extract yourself.” 

Sheila Pratt is a senior writer at the Edmonton Journal and co-author of Running on Empty: Alberta after the Boom.


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