Many of the recent Ralph Klein retrospectives will elicit a chuckle, a shake of the head, or rueful acknowledgements that Canada’s longest-serving premier sure knew how to make a story.
For 13 years, Klein dominated the news media with a mastery rivaled by few politicians. His legacy is a one-party state where no serious person even pretends to question the Conservative juggernaut. Here’s how he did it.
Shock and awe
The early ’90s were an angry, grubby time for many Albertans. Family incomes stagnated through the ’80s. Oil prices dipped, causing major job losses in Alberta. The Getty Conservatives were mired in scandal and government waste. People wanted change.
While the Gen-Xers slacked and donned plaid, the political right got their organizing on.
Some Alberta Conservatives keyed in on the yearning for change. Where Ralph Klein had once been a middle-of-the-road, reddish Tory (insofar as he had any ideological anchors at all), a firebrand free market fundamentalist emerged. People were no longer to expect anything from their taxes or their politicians. Sweeping changes were promised.
The NDP lost all their 16 seats in the 1993 election, while the Alberta Liberals, who promised to cut deeper and faster — went from eight seats to 32. Revolution was in the air.
Between 1994 and 1997, health, education and post-secondary budgets were slashed by 20 per cent, and 14,753 health care workers lost their jobs. Assistance for the disabled was frozen for 10 years. Government workers’ wages were rolled back. The list of cuts was long, the justification short: we’re living beyond our means.
In 1997, Kevin Taft wrote a slim book called Shredding the Public Interest, where he showed health care spending through the ’80s had been stable. Other programs had already been cut by Premier Getty; spending was not out of control. But corporate subsidies demanded between $2 and $3 billion per year — an amount rivaling the Conservatives’ yearly deficits. The justification for public sector cutbacks was built on a fabrication, retold with a terrifying mendacity by the province’s news media for the next 13 years.
All this over a $25 billion debt — piddly in retrospect. To put the figure into context: Alberta racked up $33 billion in surpluses over the last decade. This year, the surplus may top $10 billion — almost half the debt bogeyman.
Real people live with the consequences. From the lowest rates of high school completion and university participation, to the highest rates of divorce, problem gambling, family violence and levels of greenhouse gas emissions, Alberta continues to distinguish itself as a place defined by social and environmental extremes.
But the swiftness of the cuts, and the stark battle lines they drew, made for good copy — conflict and change always do. Good government does not make for good headlines. Shock and awe, on the other hand, fills the front pages quickly and easily, with no space lost to analysis or research.
Klein also made sure there was an army of spin doctors marching in goose step with the press gallery: 47 public relations staff in the Public Affairs Bureau reported to the Premier’s Office in 1993. A decade later, 163 spin doctors do the Premier’s Office bidding — with a $15 million budget.
Omnipresent spin gives the illusion of total control. At election time, that illusion breeds a self-satisfied, cynical, and ultimately lazy view among reporters that there’s only one game in our one-party town, and covering the activities of opposition parties or social movements is therefore unnecessary. Pundits groan at the irrelevance of the opposition, but then refuse to cover the opposition when they do something relevant, choosing instead to remain within the comfortable, awe-struck confines of total Tory control.
Access of evil
Human devastation is most certainly considered “news.” Layoffs, crowded emergency rooms, classrooms without chalk or books and lonely, sick seniors in understaffed nursing homes have all received a fair amount of coverage in Alberta’s news media — for a day or two. But somehow they don’t stick.
In the news business, victims-of-the-week are trumped by “scoops” — exclusive stories that feed competition between news outlets and can give reporters their big break.
Klein’s skills in this regard are truly magnificent. The early years were marked by careful, selective leaks to the Calgary Herald and the Sun media chain. Leaks were often “good-news” government announcements, and opposition comment was conspicuous by its absence.
That’s because Klein’s leaks came with strings attached. In its best form, leaked information is the result of somebody blowing the whistle on sketchy activities in government or corporations — that’s why reporters rely on leaks and anonymous sources for their bread and butter, and we’re all better off for it. But the Premier’s Office took leaks to a whole new level, striking deals with friendly reporters such that the reporter got an important piece of information in exchange for not going to the opposition for reaction.
Journalists who refused to strike deals were frozen out, and papers that were previously above such chicanery — notably the Edmonton Journal — eventually capitulated.
Exclusives can set the political agenda but they don’t ensure one’s mug consistently appears on the nightly news. For that, a politician must be available for comment. To some, being accessible to the media is a pain in the ass. To the savvy, it is the best way to exert control.
Klein is universally lauded in media circles for being available. At first ministers’ conferences, Klein will talk while other premiers turn tail and run. The Premier has always understood that it’s easier to write up a story about something someone said than it is to analyze budgets, conduct research, mine sources or write freedom of information requests.
Klein combines access with diverting attention away from the floor of the Legislature. Every day at 3:00 p.m., when the Legislature is sitting, the Premier holds a news conference in the dingy Legislature media room. The day’s news hinges upon that availability. Heated exchanges during Question Period — once a staple of political reporting — are no longer covered. The focus is all Klein, all the time, with ample opportunity for Ralph to say something silly in order to scuttle serious questions.
Due to the strategic timing, opposition members who wish to rebut the Premier are shrugged off, as reporters must rush back to newsrooms to file their stories in time for the 6:00 p.m. news or the end of the workday. Even those who have time to stay — columnists who write only three times per week, for example — walk out as soon as Klein is done. It is not uncommon to find opposition Liberals and NDPers speaking to an empty room after Klein leaves.
If you give people what they want, chances are they’ll forgive you if you sometimes act like a boob, or a petulant teenager, or lose your temper and yell at people or throw stuff.
The rest of the time you can act like a boob because it’s funny, and everyone wants a little levity with their politics. The quirky, funny, or mildly outrageous makes much more entertaining news than does a serious treatment of the issues of the day.
Thus goes the logic of Klein’s outrageous behaviour and its relationship with the news media. The list of unbecoming stunts is long. When faced with protests over tuition hikes in 1995, Klein called students “jackasses.” When the Parkland Institute brought in economist Armine Yalnizan to speak about poverty in 1999, Klein wrote a letter to the University of Alberta president questioning why the U of A allows the Parkland to exist.
In 2000, Klein called the Raging Grannies “left wing nuts” for protesting health care privatization and Bill 11. In 2002, the Premier attributed global warming to “dinosaur farts.” When questioned about why meat-packing companies’ profits quadrupled after the 2003 BSE crisis, Klein threw down his notes and stormed out of his press conference, declaring he’d had “enough of this crap.”
When asked to produce receipts for taxpayer-funded travel in 2004, Klein berated Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman — repeatedly asking if she was “calling him a liar” when she asked him to supply documentation for his trips. And, of course, there was that drunken 2001 visit to a men’s homeless shelter.
Last, in what must count as one of the most bizarre episodes of anyone’s political life, a simple 2004 question on auto insurance in the Legislature led to Klein defending the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, tabling a paper he wrote for Athabasca University on the topic, the discovery that the paper contained paragraphs lifted from the internet, a plagiarism uproar and embarrassment for Athabasca University, and a government request that independent university presidents write letters to the editor defending Klein — a request that was, in fact, granted.
Acting like a buffoon is one way out of a political pickle; spending tons of cash is another. The 2001 election was bookended by $2.3 billion in cash “resource rebates.” But at least that decision was made by the government. 2006’s $400 cheques appeared to have dawned on Klein while he scrummed before a 2005 caucus meeting in Cold Lake — spending $1.4 billion in the blink of an eye and against the wishes of many in his own government.
Under the radar
Sandwiched between the silly, the outrageous, and the outright fabrications are the actual issues of the day — sometimes scandalous, sometimes mundane. But because Klein was so larger than life, newsrooms often couldn’t — or wouldn’t — pause to really digest what has gone on behind the scenes.
And what a scene it is. Writing off loans to corporations — or selling off government assets at bargain basement prices — cost Alberta taxpayers $2.3 billion, or 10 per cent of the provincial debt, in the early years of the Klein administration.
Eighty per cent of the Conservative party’s finances come from large corporations — mainly in the oil and gas sector. Meanwhile, Klein allowed a $100 million royalty tax credit, described by the Auditor General as having no other purpose than “assistance to the oil and gas industry,” to stand for the duration of his premiership.
While Albertans howled at the $100 million the federal Liberals funneled to their friends via the sponsorship scandal, a similar impetus for accountability does not garner any outrage at home. For the past three years, Alberta’s political newspaper of record, the Edmonton Journal, has taken a pass on covering annual election finance reports filed by political parties.
Scandal has touched Klein, too. In 1995, Klein and his wife both received heavily discounted shares in Multi-Corp, a company the Premier promoted on an Asian trade mission (the Kleins were cleared of wrongdoing). A 1999 debacle saw the Premier accused of ordering $400 million in Alberta Treasury Branch loans to the owners of West Edmonton Mall. While an investigation cleared Klein, questions about that inquiry and the government’s involvement in the loan deals remain to this day. Electricity deregulation has cost between $3 billion and $6 billion, depending on who you talk to.
Personal proclivities also help in budgeting decisions. The horse racing industry — a favourite gambling activity for the Premier — gets a $45 million subsidy every year.
It’s not as if the wasted billions never hit the airwaves or the newspapers. But traction was often stymied by a sheer inability to get information. The province’s freedom of information request system is so expensive and time consuming that opposition parties and newsrooms cannot afford the thousands of dollars required to get simple records of flight logs, travel expenses, consulting contracts or real estate deals.
Ralph Klein’s legacy of control over the media and the message means many Albertans don’t see electoral democracy as a competition between ideas. They see it as a horse race: in a one-party state, saving your hide means betting on the colourful frontrunner. No wonder Premier Klein was so good at it.
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