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On the anniversary of his death, we come to bury Ralph Klein, not to praise him

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Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein playing golf with Dan MacLennan, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees during part of Klein's term in office. Image: Dan MacLennan

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 Klein, who was premier from December 14, 1992, to December 14, 2006, is bound to be bathed is a saintly golden glow throughout the day, in conservative circles at least.

No doubt as this is written, Alberta 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 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.

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 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 Klein disdained.

A neoliberal of convenience, 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 Klein's time in office than might otherwise have been expected.

But then, unlike the current crop of Alberta Conservatives, 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 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 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.

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

Annoyed at Kenney's pious hectoring, 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 Klein saying in April that year.

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

Threatened with legal action by the future premier in a hallway contretemps in the legislature building, 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 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.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Dan MacLennan

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