Welcome to Ralph’s world

Conversazione – the lunchtime series of research talks by faculty at York’s Glendon campus – recently offered a presentation touching on the political legacy of Ralph Klein, Alberta’s Conservative premier.

Josée Bergeron (left), assistant professor in Glendon’s Political Science department, offered her analysis of the current political situation in Alberta, with the tongue-in-cheek title “Ralph et moi” (Ralph and Me) on March 22. Bergeron, who has been teaching political science at Glendon for the past three years, was on the faculty of the University of Alberta for the preceding seven years. With her special focus on media and politics, and on the socio-political restructuring of the state, she is particularly well-situated to assess this topic.

Bergeron described the enormous success of the Conservatives at the provincial election of March 2001, taking 74 of a possible 83 seats. Immediately after the election, Klein expressed his satisfaction at receiving this overwhelming mandate for continuing the longest unbroken control of the premiership by one party in Canadian history. On that evening, he made a dramatic pronouncement, not just once but three times, declaring to his supporters, “Welcome to Ralph’s world!” The statement incited Bergeron’s interest in revisiting this “world” in order to assess just what it is and the legacy that Klein will leave behind now that his retirement is imminent.

Bergeron took her audience on a journey for a look at how Klein’s government disburses Alberta’s enormous wealth, and which segments of Alberta’s society benefit. The population of Alberta has more than quadrupled since the early 1940s; it has also transformed from a largely agricultural to a predominantly urban society. The electoral districts favour the rural population, which is an important factor in the continued success of Klein and his party, in the face of general dissatisfaction among the urban population with social and health services, local transportation and the public school system.

Left: Alberta Premier Ralph Klein

Albertans, Bergeron noted, persist in feeling left out of Ottawa’s decisions, demanding a larger representation in federal institutions, as well as a greater autonomy in decisions concerning them. Whether these complaints are well-founded or not, there is little doubt, she said, that Klein and his government have fostered these hostile feelings and used them for their own political advantage.

Bergeron highlighted how the federal government in the 1970s took steps to control oil exportation, in an attempt to ensure supplies for Canadian needs; in 1973, the federal government also created PetroCan for the exploration and exploitation of the tar sands. These measures were loudly criticized by Alberta’s provincial government as federal meddling in provincial matters, said Bergeron.

She pointed to another major field of contention in Alberta: the reconfiguration of the provincial government’s part in the health service. The Klein government used the US approach as its model for “reinventing government”, i.e. reducing costs by significantly curtailing its size, role and influence. Klein further embarked on eliminating the income tax, increasing privatization in health and other service areas, and downloading powers and decision-making to high-ranking individuals, such as ministers of government departments, without the checks and balances of public control.

Bergeron outlined the disastrous results of some of Klein’s actions. She cited the 21 per cent reduction of government contribution to health services, which disabled its proper functioning. Klein then declared that the system was too expensive and that it didn’t work, using this situation to embark on the privatization of the health service. In addition, Klein’s government eliminated publicly funded kindergarten, reduced the salaries of doctors and civil servants, begging the question of just where the oil income is being spent.

Bergeron’s conclusion was that “Ralph’s World” is not the same for all Albertans, and that those who need help and services the most are the least well-provided for. In order to bring in his “new ideology”, Klein has created an artificial crisis in the public sector by tragically under-funding it. “He is preaching ‘less state’, but ironically needs a strong, controlling central power to support the changes he has brought in,” said Bergeron. “Klein has such strong control over all the public structures of his province, that opposition is left with very few official avenues for protest and change.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny