Premier Ralph Klein’s statements about Chile in the Alberta legislature last Thursday were incredibly offensive. They display an alarming lack of understanding of history, and clearly expose the Alberta government’s frightening disregard for democracy and its institutions.

In a discussion about the merits of public auto insurance, Klein made reference to the bloody 1973 military coup by General Augusto Pinochet that ousted the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.

[Editor’s note — here are Ralph Klein’s words, during the discussion about public auto insurance:

It sounds like (former president Salvador) Allende in Chile, you know, when he took over all the coppermines and said the Americans are out, the government now owns all the coppermines, all the minerals, all the resources, all the mining … Pinochet came in, Mr. Speaker, and I’m not saying that Pinochet was any better, but because of the only elected communist in Chile, Allende, and the socialist reforms he put in, Pinochet was forced, I would say, to mount a coup.

Later, Klein “clarified” his remarks:

My comments last week were not meant in any way to express personal support or admiration for the Pinochet regime — quite the contrary. . . . My only purpose for making those remarks was to point out that socialism can often lead to unintended repercussions to society. Unfortunately, that’s what happened in Chile.]

For 17 years after the coup, Pinochet presided over one of the most deadly, oppressive and brutal dictatorships the world has ever known — a dictatorship that resulted in the murder of thousands of Chileans by agents of the government. Thousands more were imprisoned, tortured, forced into exile or made to disappear, never to be heard from again. All of this for simply having the “wrong” political beliefs.

As someone whose father survived 12 months of imprisonment, torture and interrogation at the hands of this government, I find the Premier’s suggestion that somehow these acts were justified terribly offensive — as I am sure do the thousands of other Chilean-Canadians who came to Alberta to escape torture, oppression, and almost certain death. It is mind-boggling that a Premier who claims to speak for average Albertans could show such contempt for those Albertans who came here in search of a society that valued and respected democracy, human life and freedom of political affiliation.

Klein’s assertion that Pinochet was “not much better” than Allende makes one wonder what kind of history books the Premier has been reading. To equate the murderous criminal acts of the Pinochet dictatorship with Allende’s democratic coalition government is a gross transgression of history. Allende’s only “crime” was to institute the social and economic reforms he had promised in his election platform — reforms that a majority of Chilean voters gave him a clear mandate to implement. Those reforms were implemented within the parameters of Chilean law, and with complete respect for and abidance by the decisions of Congress, the Senate and the Supreme Court — institutions that Pinochet dismantled immediately upon attaining power.

Klein’s demonstrated lack of knowledge of history would be alarming in anyone, but it is inexcusable in the elected leader of a provincial government.

What is perhaps most frightening about the Premier’s statement, however, is what it reveals about his level of contempt for democracy. His assertion that Pinochet was “forced” to mount a coup because of Allende’s policies demonstrates that, for Klein, democracy and human life take a back seat to ideology.

To justify the coup in Chile, and the subsequent murder and torture of thousands on the grounds of ideological differences, makes one wonder to what degree Klein is prepared to subvert democracy in Alberta for the sake of implementing his ideology. Klein, who has shown complete intolerance of protest and signs of dissent, is essentially saying that it is acceptable and laudable to bypass democratic processes and institutions if one strongly disagrees with the governing ideology. The question for the Premier is whether that philosophy should apply equally for both sides of the political spectrum, or only to those governments that he disagrees with.

The Premier’s statements were an affront to the pain, suffering and loss of thousands of Chileans, and he clearly owes them an apology. In addition, however, the Premier must also provide a clear explanation to all Albertans about his views on the value of democracy, and on what grounds, in his mind, it is justifiably bypassed. As the leader of a government who will likely be asking to be re-elected within the next 12 months, Albertans deserve to know how far the Premier is willing to go to see his ideologically driven agenda implemented. In his mind, does ideology always trump democracy?