Team Advantage discusses the subtle pros and cons of blowing up hospitals, delivering 20% cuts, privatizing health care and relying on magical oil & gas money to solve all your problems.
Voice 1: —and by, waiting for the balloon to clear. I’ve got a “here we go,” I don’t know what that means. We’re waiting for the countdown now. The countdown is on.
Voice 2: — there was a countdown timer, we’re going 30 seconds.
Voice 1: — 30 seconds, we just got a 30 second cue.
Voice 2: We’re at 10. 10 seconds. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire.
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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is a bi-monthly political commentary podcast that offers analysis on Calagarian and Albertan politics from a left-wing perspective.
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Joel: Welcome to the Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Joel, and around the table this week we’ve got Patrick —
Patrick: Hello, hello.
Joel: — we’ve got Amir —
Joel: — we’ve got Levi —
Levi: Hi there.
Joel: —we’ve got Karen —
Joel: —we’ve got Will—
Joel: —and we’ve got Kate.
Kate: Hey there.
Joel: And we’ve assembled Team Advantage this week to discuss everybody’s favourite Alberta Premier, Ralph Klein. [pause] What, there’s no round of boos?
Levi: We don’t speak ill of the dead.
Joel: Speaking ill of the dead. What are the politics of it?
Kate: It’s good.
Levi: It depends on how long they’re dead.
Patrick: And it depends on the intent, right? If you’re just taking potshots at somebody who’s gone, that’s not cool. Ralph Klein was, you know, he a figure of his time. He had a huge impact on Alberta for his era, and that’s worth talking about. And not all of it was good. So what do you do?
Will: “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is more like “don’t bring up Grandma’s alcohol problem at the funeral.” It doesn’t really apply to public figures who have an impact on people’s lives. So, I mean, it would seem to mean that we would never be able to criticize political figures for their legacy, which is exactly what we’re going to do right now.
Amir: I don’t know, man. I think it’s great to dance on people’s graves —
Kate: Yeah, I gotta just say —
Amir: — and I don’t understand this thing of “don’t speak ill of the dead,” you know? I was so happy when — before Margaret Thatcher died, there were all these Left groups that had posters and stuff, saying, “Okay, when she drops, we’ll host a party,” and all these nerds were crying about it and saying, “Oh, so respectful,” or whatever, but I thought it was amazing.
Kate: And there was a party, and it fucking ruled. There was champagne.
Will: Ralph Klein died very close to Margaret Thatcher; like, a couple of weeks.
Kate: What a week. That is a blessed week.
Levi: 2013, best year on record.
Joel: I think this relates a little bit to a previous episode that we did on centrism and the politics of decorum. It doesn’t matter, the substance of what you say, it’s how you say it; as long as it’s always polite and well-fashioned, then it’s acceptable, but if you happen to say something that’s off-colour, then it’s frowned on.
Kate: It’s sort of this idea that when Margaret Thatcher died, people were celebrating to be mean, and they weren’t celebrating because Margaret Thatcher had caused immeasurable harm to their lives, and her being gone was a relief. Right? Same with Ralph Klein; it’s not like we’re critiquing Ralph Klein now that he’s dead because we’re mean, it’s because he had a huge, lasting political impact on Alberta, and to not address that would be frankly irresponsible.
Joel: Alright, so now that we’ve cleared up that it’s totally fine to speak ill of the dead, let’s talk about Ralph Klein.
Amir: He is the plotline from Force Awakens, you know? I don’t know anything about this guy except the Wikipedia Article, and he— semi-orphaned, all the good things happened to him, and, for some reason, everybody likes him, you know? I don’t know, he just seems like a Gary Sue or something like that.
Karen: Always fails upward; everything he does, he gets rewarded for, even if he technically fails.
Kate: No one fails upwards like Tories. Tory men fail so upwards.
Will: Klein’s background is also interesting because — I mean, we talk about him living somewhat of a charmed life; it was also — his childhood, his parents went very early, he was raised by his grandparents, he grew up in a working-class part of Calgary. He didn’t finish high school, but then he spent nine years mayor of Calgary and thirteen years as premier. So that’s quite a long stretch of public life, and he was generally quite popular through all of it. He doesn’t come out of the sort of traditional background of being a lawyer or businessman or coming from a family of established —
Levi: Like the Loughheeds, which are a political dynasty in Alberta, yeah.
Will: Yeah, exactly.
Patrick: And looking at the careers that he had, and the career choices that he made, there’s certainly a lot of luck to it, but there’s also a certain shrewdness to it, too. His very first work is as a PR person of sorts for some non-profits in town, and then he moves from that into media, and then he moves from that into municipal politics, and he moves from that into provincial politics, and even the cabinet postings he got gave him the opportunity to tour the province and meet lots of people and kind of lay the groundwork for the movement. And you can kind of see that sort of shrewdness through his whole career, actually.
Joel: So when it comes to Ralph Klein’s origins; okay, scrappy, sort of working-class, upbringing.
Levi: One thing we need to talk about his upbringing is that I think is worth mentioning is that his father is a professional wrestler, and his name is Phil “The Killer” Klein, and that’s cool as hell, and it makes me even sadder that he came from where he did and he turned out the way he did, because it sounds like his dad fucking ruled.
Patrick: There’s a little anecdote that I found in the Globe and Mail obituary of Klein, actually, that I thought was interesting, too. So he finished grade 10 high school, dropped out, and he actually became an RCAF reservist. And he quickly realized that he has made a serious mistake; he became so depressed that he qualified for a medical discharge. So he was honourably discharged, and, as a veteran, he was then given free tuition and a monthly stipend for vocational training at Calgary Business College. Man, just — so he had his way paved for him, he had his post-secondary covered, right? Which is a good thing in and of itself, but it’s also kind of shocking to contrast this leg up that he was given very early in his life, which I think is a good thing —
Kate: When conservatives are taken care of by the social security net, they deserve it and they have earned it. When the rest of us do it, we are leeches and welfare bums and we deserve to die on the street.
Levi: Makes you think. Makes you think.
Will: It really makes you think.
Patrick: Well, I mean, the lesson to take is clearly that we should just cut all sorts of post-secondary supports so that we stop funding these conservatives.
Kate: I really do think that is something that’s so under-acknowledged in conservative politics, is that there is this social safety net for the rich and for people who are socialized into these classes. There’s a huge social security net — no matter what tragedies befalls these people, they will never suffer the same way the rest of us do when something bad happens. And that should be extended to everyone else. We should all get it. And that lack of ability to have empathy and compassion for other people is absolutely fucking rank.
Levi: Mhm. Well, they immediately think that, as soon as they get the leg up, “Oh, things are different now. Now, things are different, and now, people don’t actually need it. But back then, things were different and I needed it, and that was fine.”
Amir: Obviously not most of them, but, on the right wing, there’s a couple of rough-and-tumble guys that started from rough beginnings and then the right wing weaponizes them. And they start believing themselves, too, because they’re like, “Okay, if I made it to here and I came from nothing, what’s your excuse?” kind of thing. That trope is very common in conservative circles, because there’s always a guy who made it, obviously.
Kate: What Joel said was totally right. It’s like, they get up the ladder and then they pull the ladder up behind them.
Patrick: And in this case, the ladder that was pulled up behind them was incredibly literal and concrete. I pulled up the numbers because I wanted to read about Ralph Klein’s cuts — and we’re skipping ahead in time a little bit, but just this one figure — the first budget after he becomes premier, he cuts $245,000,000 from the education budget. So a quarter of a billion dollars.
Levi: In ’93.
Patrick: In ’93. So there it is, right? These are the opportunities for people who were like Klein that were just being slashed.
Joel: So he gets this post-secondary stipend, or whatever. My understanding is that he worked for the Red Cross and United Way for a little bit, the nonprofit world, and then moved on to media; he got a radio job, and then a TV job shortly after, and spent it as a TV reporter doing reporting in the Calgary area.
Will: I think he did a lot of civic affairs reporting first. It was CTV Now.
Patrick: CTV — he began as a weatherman; after acing the weatherman job, he moved on to City Hall affairs.
Levi: Even just listing the few jobs that he’s had up until this point in his career; can you imagine how many apply for a million jobs and not be able to get one of these jobs that he’s already had at this point in his life?
Will: He was also coming up through an era in Canadian history where unemployment was historically low. And Alberta was doing pretty well, basically because of oil production all after World War II, you just had a huge economic expansion for thirty to forty years.
Levi: So labour market was a little tighter, so you didn’t have thousands of resumes for every single job application, right?
Joel: So what has he learned as a media person, as a civic reporter, essentially?
Kate: This is kind of an aside, but journalists should not be allowed to be involved in politics. I do think there’s an actual issue with lateral movement between the pundit class and the political class. Think of people like Danielle Smith who led the Wild Rose party through its ascendency and now is a pundit of sorts.
Levi: She was a journalist before that, too.
Kate: Exactly; this sort of lateral movement between those two classes just reinforces what already know, which is that these people are part of the same class, you know? They marry each other, they go to the same parties, they live in the same neighbourhoods, all that kind of crap. So I genuinely think that Klein being a journalist allowed him to socialize into a politically powerful class of people.
Levi: Mhm. And he was able to develop a public persona in that meantime, which was not a very — it’s a little bit easier now with social media and the amount of exposure that some people can get, but that was not an easy thing to get back then, and he certainly used it to his advantage, in particular with city politics.
Joel: Working as a reporter, he definitely learned how to work the media, or how the media works and perhaps how you could work it later.
Levi: Maybe he had some friends that were there still when he decided to make the jump, too? Who knows.
Joel: So what year does Klein actually get elected as mayor?
Joel: What does Calgary look like in 1980?
Levi: It’s on the up and up in terms of — Calgary was a pretty booming place at that point.
Joel: I mean, what’s the price of oil doing at that point?
Kate: Drill, baby, drill.
Patrick: It’s $40 or something in 1980 dollars?
Will: Ah, so nothing’s changed.
Joel: So Calgary’s expanding, the LRT gets put in during the ’80s, Calgary hosts the Olympics in ’88, all of which he has a hand in. Apparently, after the Olympics, Ralph Klein gets kind of bored; he’s like, “Okay, well, I did everything I could,” and then sort of maneuvers to the provincial scene.
Patrick: The Olympics were kind of his baby, actually. He spent a bunch of time after he became mayor kind of travelling the world, courting the IOC, just trying to get them on board, to take Calgary seriously. Calgary spent way more money than Vancouver did, which was another competitor at the time. And once he’d kind of secured the bid, he succeeded in staying on as major for enough subsequent terms to actually see the Olympics through, so that was — it seemed to be quite a big deal for him.
Joel: Also as mayor was when he uttered his famous “Eastern creeps and bums” phrase. During a routine speech to the newcomer’s club at the height of the boom, Klein said Easterners who wanted to come to Calgary to commit petty crime or rob banks weren’t welcome. He called them bums and creeps. Only one reporter was at a luncheon, but when the story appeared on the front page of the Calgary Herald, media across the country latched on to it. He didn’t back away from any of his comments, apparently; instead, he went on a tour of eastern Canada to explain his remarks and reassure Easterners that he and other Calgarians weren’t really bigots or rednecks.
Amir: That’s interesting because, there, you start getting hints of how this guy — everything bad that’s thrown against him just kind of bounces off him, you know? That sort of comment would have screwed a lot of people, but he didn’t even back out from it, he just kind of made it work into his advantage.
Levi: Calgary’s very working-class; especially back then, it was much less corporate city, and there’s probably a lot of people that were there that were totally fine with it and probably said those things in their own lives to describe the people that were coming to the city.
Joel: Does anybody know the exact year where — so I think he ran for the nomination in —
Joel: Calgary-Elbow in ’89?
Will: Yeah, he gets elected in the 1989 provincial election.
Joel: Yeah, he basically immediately gets made environment minister after getting elected as an MLA.
Will: It’s not that surprising when you get high-profile MLAs end up giving them cabinet positions.
Joel: At a press conference as environment minister, he lost his temper and have an environmentalist the middle finger salute.
Amir: What was his view on environmental issues?
Levi: And as far as that cabinet position within the PC government, the environment minister —
Kate: It’s a fucking joke.
Levi: — yeah, it always has been. And now, with the NDP government, it’s an extraordinarily important and prestigious position, but, back then, it was like, “Oh, we’ll give this guy who says stupid things this position as soon as he gets elected and let him go tour the province.”
Joel: Another fun note — noting this transition from mayor to MLA and environment minister —that, as mayor, he left the city with 1.6 billion dollars in debt.
Levi: Are you telling me that conservatives, when they talk about running surpluses, they are not necessarily entirely truthful? This is big news to me.
Kate: Would they be intellectually dishonest? Do you think?
Levi: The man is dead, Joel. Have some respect.
Joel: I’m sorry for being incredibly disrespectful. But, you know, a reporter asked him about it, and he actually responded by saying, “Spending public money during a recession is the best way to put people to work and keep businesses from going bankrupt. I think those were brilliant decisions,” he told a reporter just before he left for Edmonton. In another interview, he said, “It’s like a mortgage on a house. You pay it off over a reasonable time and don’t try to incur any new debt that’s unnecessary. So the debt just doesn’t worry me, it’s not something new.” So, apparently, departing the role as mayor, he was like, “There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of deficit finance, you just pay it off slowly.”
Kate: With, like, Orthodox Keynesian economics —
Will: The late ’80s in Calgary was a pretty severe recession when the price of oil plummeted.
Joel: Let’s talk a little about the federal political environment that this is all happening in, right? Who’s in power in the late ’80s and then in the early ’90s?
Joel: And what, let’s say, Western political phenomenon is a-brewing in Alberta?
Kate: Western alienation.
Joel: What do we like to call that party?
Joel: Yeah, there we go. And what was Reform’s big — what were some of their big talking points?
Levi: Oh fuck. God —
Will: I just —
Kate: I’m sorry, Canadian history is so boring —
Joel: I know, it’s so boring —
Kate: — and parochial —
Joel: Here’s the answer —
Levi: And all these people are still fucking around. Preston Manning is still here —
Joel: Just banging the drum about government debt and spending, right?
Kate: I really do think it’s worth pointing out that, when conservatives talk about government debt and spending, that they are not actually putting forth any kind of coherent argument, and they are using that as an ideological weapon with which to bludgeon anyone who is slightly left of center, with which to bludgeon anyone who tries to have public programs that would actually help people, et cetera. It’s not a real concern, and we all do ourselves a grave, grave disservice when we treat fiscal hawks or whatever like their concern about the deficit is genuine.
Joel: Oh yeah, never take a fiscal hawk in good faith. Never trust that they’re making the argument in good faith —
Kate: They’re snakes!
Joel: — because they really are not.
Amir: What I’m trying to understand is the Canadian political landscape, simple because, for example, Canada is not the US, so there were other things that are even across all parties — for example, things like public healthcare is given in all sides. So I’m wondering if the reason why this guy was saying that that was okay is because it was in the political climate at that time where that was a consensus thing to say.
Joel: Well, he was saying it as he was leaving the role of being mayor in a city that had incurred, I think, the second-highest debt in the country after Montreal.
Kate: Yeah, he was saying it because it was politically expedient and Ralph Klein liked winning.
Will: I think that’s a really important thing to understand about Klein is that he is kind of a political opportunist. He was never — he’s not the idealogue that, say, Kenney is. While he certainly had a coherent political project, he was always willing to change things depending on what would allow him to win, so would he have said that about Calgary, where, yeah, “Deficit spending is good during a recession,” and then, later, basically obliterate public spending in Alberta in the ‘90s.
Patrick: You could call that political opportunism, but you could also call that a finely tuned sense of populism. It kind of happens several times over the course of his career, that he, or someone in his party, does something that’s really unpopular, and he just goes, “Okay, I guess people don’t like that,” and he just walks it back. And I guess it’s kind of opportunist in the sense that it’s not politically coherent, he’s not standing by his guns, but it’s also almost democratically responsible in that he just bails on stuff that is obviously really unpopular. I think that probably contributed a lot to his success, is that he was able to defuse crisis with his policies, he wasn’t too attached to them.
Joel: He also, before getting elected, had owned membership cards in the Progressive Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the Social Credit parties provincially, right?
Kate: I wanted to say a great example of the difference between Klein as opportunist and Kenney as idealogue is their stance on abortion, right? Klein notoriously was like, “You know, abortion, whatever; it’s between” — I think he said — “a woman, her doctor, and God,” and that is not something I could really even see Jason Kenney saying because I think Jason Kenney has an idealogical commitment to being anti-choice. I don’t think Ralph Klein really gave a flying fuck about abortion. I think he cared about being premier.
Will: Well, yeah — that was in the 1993 election, when the PCs were actually kind of in trouble, the Decore Liberals decided to — well, Decore said that he would shut down all the free-standing abortion clinics, and Klein said no, that he wouldn’t do that.
Levi: Radical centrism.
Will: Yeah, he wouldn’t do that, which probably helped the Liberals, who were kind of on track to defeating the PCs.
Levi: Yeah, they were.
Joel: So let’s talk about that ’93 election a little bit. The Liberals were campaigning on a platform of brutal cuts, whereas the PCs were campaigning on a platform of moderate cuts, I believe.
Levi: The Liberals went around —
Patrick: Major cuts.
Joel: Oh, sorry — major cuts.
Levi: The Liberals went around the province with the debt clock. That’s where the debt clock comes from, was the Liberals in ‘93.
Joel: Cursed invention.
Kate: I was going to say, like, you can’t see this because it’s audio, but my mouth literally dropped open like a cartoon character.
Levi: It’s something that they did, and it was hugely popular for them. They were very — that was a big win for them.
Will: Part of it, too, is that the PCs had been in power since 1971 at this point, so there’s a bit of a “throw the bums out” mood in the electorate, and the PCs had to fight that.
Kate: This province is hell.
Levi: Well, the PCs federally had just gotten absolutely fucking obliterated federally. They won two seats after being in majority. That is just astounding. And it was partly because of reform, partly because of their bungling of constitutional reforms of the Meech Lake Accords and the Charlottetown Accords and Mulroney shitting the bed and NAFTA and other issues, but the PC brand was not popular anywhere at this point, and Klein becoming leader was definitely a “we need something way different, and we need to change course,” and he was sort of that new face. Even though he was a minister for a couple years, he was still seen as a bit of an outsider, and especially being from Calgary.
Kate: Not to bag on the Alberta Liberals too much — although, obviously, I would love to and am — but can you imagine having a historic opportunity to defeat this longstanding Conservative government and campaigning on brutal cuts?
Will: Let’s try to out-maneuver them on the right. I’m sure that’ll work out.
Kate: You know, that is actually a great move for a center-left party, is trying to out-maneuver people on the right.
Will: Yeah, it’s totally believable, and people totally go for it.
Amir: So, what I don’t understand, though, is how campaigning of cuts have actually popular appeal, because when I see it, for example, in American politics, obviously Republicans love cuts — everybody loves cuts, but supposedly Republicans love cuts more — they never say “cuts”, you know? They say, “oh, you’re going to pay less taxes—”
Joel: “Entitlement reform,” stuff like that.
Amir: Yeah, but the way you guys are framing this is they are campaigning on cuts, and, somehow, people who use these social institutions are like, “oh, that sounds great!” I don’t get it.
Will: Well, Klein didn’t really focus on the cuts so much. I mean, he coined the term “Alberta Advantage”, our namesake, which basically referred to this idea that government should get into the business of business and that we should roll back the state and taxes and stuff in order to make the economy boom. So that’s part of the appeal of it, is that, if we are aggressively pro-business, then this actually can be a popular political position, because people want the economy to boom, they want jobs, they want to get paid well. That’s kind of more where the appeal is; it’s a positive vision more than saying, “I’m going to annihilate the public service.”
Levi: Alberta also, historically, is one of the lowest tax jurisdictions in North America and, probably, has historically had the lowest taxes in Canada, which works great when you have magical oil money coming in — you can pay for things like roads and highways and hospitals and all that good stuff without taxing people. But suddenly, when oil revenues tank — like they did in the late to mid ’80s — those revenues aren’t there anymore and, suddenly, your budgets don’t make sense, and so you need to make cuts. So I think part of what you’re looking at in the ’93 election and this commitment to cuts is the aftershocks of the downturn in oil prices in the late ’80s.
Patrick: Yeah, so the provincial budget, just as they were going into election, was they were 23 billion dollars in debt in ’93, ’92 dollars, and they had a deficit of between 2.5 and 3 billion a year. So they were bleeding an awful lot of money, and that’s because the price of oil had dropped by 75%.
Levi: Even with being the lowest tax jurisdiction in the country and having the Alberta Advantage for a long time, there was the first leader of the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta, Lougheed. He at least had some foresight in terms of planning for when oil wasn’t going to be there in establishing the Alberta Heritage Trust Fund and putting a lot of money into that, but by the time of the ‘93 election, there hadn’t been any dollars put into it in six, seven years or something like that. And there hasn’t been any money put into it since then, still. And it was sort of like the plans that were in place, and the things that should have been happening to make sure that these kind of cuts didn’t have to happen, those plans were abandoned years before Klein got in office, so it was sort of seen as the only other option to kind of do what they had to do while remaining very low-tax jurisdiction.
Joel: Alright, so Klein wins the election in ’93. I just found the numbers on the turnout for the ’93 election — or, not the turnout, but the percent of the vote. The PCs got elected with 44.3% of the vote, and the Liberals win their seats with 40% of the vote, and the seat breakdown is 51 of 83 seats for the PCs —
Levi: First past the post is so cool.
Joel: — and then 32 seats for the Liberals.
Amir: I was going to ask a question about that. So that seems like a decent enough position. What happens to the Liberals? Why did they get obliterated?
Kate: They’re bad at politics.
Levi: Honestly, thought, that’s — yeah, they’re very bad at politics, and they were.
Will: Well, Decore died not long after he — actually, I think he resigned as leader after that because he was seen as having blown the election.
Kate: Which he did.
Levi: Which he did.
Will: Yeah, which he did. And then he later died a few years later of cancer, and the Liberals basically have been in slow decline.
Joel: So — Klein gets in. What are the major changes he proposes?
Patrick: There are so many major changes. Those first three, four years were just really, really monumental in setting the tone for what was going to happen in Alberta. Here’s a little quote from the research we did: “Six months after Klein’s elected, he aims for 20% across the board budget cuts, which amounts to $280,000,000 from healthcare, $245,000,000 from education, 140,000,000 cut to postsecondary institutions, and $100,000,000 from social services.” So Alberta Registries gets sold. We used to have an Alberta liquor control board — that gets sold. We used to have an Alberta energy company — this was an innovation by Lougheed where, if you were an ordinary Albertan, you could buy shares in this company and have a stake in oil and gas production in the province. Really cool! Sold for half a billion dollars and, apparently, that was a tiny fraction of what it was actually worth. Alberta government telephones – we had our own telephone network, and that was sold at a discount as well and became Telus.
Kate: I’m so mad.
Patrick: But wait, there’s more! All this good stuff!
Joel: Yeah, whenever you pay a Telus bill, just remember that that could be a Crown corporation that would actually be – where the profits made would be reinvested in the services you use, but instead it’s just going to Telus’ shareholders.
Karen: Like we were talking about Sasktel in a previous episode, and it’s like, “Oh, we could have this?” But I guess not.
Kate: No, we can’t have nice things because, if the budget is not balanced, the money! Will! Be! Sad!
Joel: Don’t want to make the money sad.
Amir: Okay, so this is another question I have. What’s the period of boom and bust oscillation, more or less? Like, how many –
Patrick: Well, with oil and gas, the frustrating thing is that there are no predictable cycles, right? Like, the events that trigger an oil and gas price spike or price fall are basically large geopolitical events that you can’t really predict. So –
Joel: Like an oil embargo, or the opposite of an oil embargo, an oil flood, from – it’s basically what Saudi Arabia was doing –
Kate: It’s like, you can’t really – I guess you can, but you can’t really predict, like, Israel invading Syria.
Amir: Okay, but I’m asking because, first, there’s always this folk knowledge in Alberta, like, “Oh, it’s going to pick up.”
Patrick: It always has eventually, you just have no idea if and when it will happen this time, right?
Amir: Because what I’m thinking is that – so, you know, these guys were all so desperate and frenzied to do these crazy cuts; I would think, given that the way Calgarians think, they would be like, “Oh, we can still run a deficit until the thing picks up again,” you know? So that’s what they think, I don’t understand the urgency behind these cuts.
Patrick: So here’s the really frustrating thing, is that just as Klein was making these cuts, in ’93 and ’95, the price of oil and gas went up again. It was recovering all the while that he was making these cuts. And he did eliminate the deficit in two years – he cut the two billion dollar deficit down to zero in ’95 – but most of that was due to oil and gas royalties. So he didn’t have to do all the damage that he did.
Amir: I don’t know how – it just seems amazing that this sort of rhetoric – for someone as ambitious as this guy, you would think that he would cater more to the, I don’t know, working class or something, his base, but he was able to just make them accept these cuts. It’s just crazy to me.
Kate: So that’s the thing, is he gets the political will to do these things through, basically, a stroke of sheer fucking luck, which is the price of oil going back up.
Will: Well, part of it is, if you’re saying “I’m going to do all this brutal stuff to public services, but the reason I’m doing this is because it’s needed for the economy,” and then you do this and then, because of the increase in oil, the economy starts to recover anyway – I mean, people kind of take this correlation as related.
Kate: People don’t tend to accept policies like this – like monetary policies, selling off public services – unless they think it’s the only option, and because the economy goes up at the same time, people are like, “Well, it sucks, but I guess it’s how we have to do it.”
Joel: Something to keep in mind, too, is that privatizations and selling off public assets makes a certain kind of sense – and I’m not advocating for it or anything, but rhetorically it makes sense – if you’re banging this drum of deficit reduction, debt reduction. And also; privatizing stuff, you can make yourself great political allies by doing that. You can sell off privatized public assets to your buddies, who will then kick back great campaign contributions to you.
Kate: Seriously, austerity is jut class war done by the rich to the rest of us.
Levi: He literally blew up hospitals and schools.
Joel: What effects did these cuts and these policy moves have on people? Twenty percent cuts across the board, for example.
Patrick: There were three hospitals that served the downtown area in Calgary – here was the Calgary General, there was Holy Cross, and I forget the other – the general hospital is the one that was blown up. The other two were privatized, and, as a consequence, there was no way to obtain emergency services in the downtown core. And this probably contributed to people dying in ways they did not need to die in.
Levi: It’s tough because this guy’s such a funny idiot, but when you delve into what he actually did, it’s so goddamn fucking depressing.
Kate: It’s very depressing. And I know when you say something like “social murder”, it sounds really over the top, but seriously – if people die because they could not access emergency services, and the reason they could not access emergency services is because Ralph Klein is out here blowing up hospitals, privatizing hospitals, firing public sector employees, then Ralph Klein, and his politics, killed that person, because they reasonably could have expected to have access to a level of care that would have extended their life.
Joel: So here’s a fun fact that sort of illustrates what was going on in Alberta. In January of 1993, 10,302 people used the Edmonton Food Bank. In January 1994, 14,582. And in January of 1995, 17,909. So food bank use is just skyrocketing in Edmonton.
Will: The cuts to social services, I think they increased homelessness in Calgary by over 700%.
Joel: Another interesting fact to remember is that, between about the mid ’80s and when Klein comes in, government spending in Alberta is actually lower or flatlining. So it’s not like government spending was skyrocketing and then you had to cut it, it was already low and then they cut it more. So, regarding the February ’94 budget, the government’s own figures show that, between ’93 and the end of ’94 alone, public service was reduced by about 7000 positions – including 1800 through early retirement and 1300 through attrition. Government also anticipated further 1100 jobs would be lost by March ’97, cutting a total of 8000 civil service positions from 36,000.
Will: And that doesn’t include pay cuts and pay freezes for the people they kept.
Joel: Oh yeah, and there was 5% pay cuts that they made people just eat.
Kate: A lot of the ways cuts to public sectors are often framed, as if the cuts will impact kind of that middle management layer of public sectors, so Alberta Health Services bureaucrats, or those kind of City Hall red tape that have to deal with –
Levi: Red tape. Fuck. Ugh.
Kate: Yeah, and that’s just not the reality of cuts to public services. They always cut front-line workers, right? So people are sold one thing, they’re sold a myth of the middle manager who makes, like, $90,000 a year; like, that job’s gone because they don’t really do anything. But in reality it’s, like, nurses.
Levi: Yeah, and, you know, the myth of trickle-down economics. Trickle-down cuts really, really do trickle down.
Will: The term “finding efficiencies” does so much ideological work in cases like this because they’re always selling this idea that there’s actually this enormous amount of government inefficiency and waste, that we just have to find it and get rid of it and we can balance the budgets, but in reality, governments tend to be quite efficient in the services they deliver, so it usually means cuts almost always impact front-line services, especially when you’re talking about 20% budget cuts.
Kate: The uncomfortable fact of delivering a public healthcare system is that the majority of healthcare spending is going to be on things like hospital beds and nurses and the infrastructure you need to deliver those services. And you know what? That’s worth it. That’s the whole reason of having a public healthcare system, is so we use public money to fund that stuff.
Joel: In the ’90s, you have all these cuts, and their consequences are being felt throughout the province.
Levi: Still dealing with it today, yes.
Joel: Yup. The General Hospital gets blown up in ’98, I believe.
Joel: Which — you can still see the clip on — plug it into YouTube, Alberta General Hospital demolition – then they do the countdown, and it stalls for a second because an air balloon is floating by and they have to wait until the air balloon goes, and then they do the countdown again, and then they blow up the hospital, and people are cheering — it’s just strange.
Levi: It’s disgusting.
Kate: It’s actually bread and circuses.
Will: Where was it exactly? Because I was never in Calgary —
Joel: It was in Bridgeline.
Patrick: It was in Bridgeline.
Joel: You know that sort of park area in Bridgeline now?
Karen: Yeah, so quite central, yeah.
Patrick: It’s quite a nice —
Levi: It’s a fucking awesome location for a hospital.
Kate: What a great place that would be to have some sort of healthcare infrastructure.
Karen: Yeah. I love how I have to drive to the South Health campus, which is literally the most southern edge of the city, to get a specialist, because then that’s like an hour-long drive when it could’ve been in, say, Bridgeline, near where I live.
Patrick: There’s one more stand-up feature of Klein’s early years that I feel like we have to talk about, and that’s what he did to the royalty regime that we inherited from Lougheed. Lougheed was this hard-driving negotiator. He got maximum royalties individually negotiated with every single oil sands project.
Will: He was very, very skilled.
Patrick: He got value for Alberta. And what Klein decided to do was to replace that with a one-size-fits-all system that charged a 1% royalty rate until the capital costs of the project were paid off. It was a massive giveaway to the oil and gas industry. And that was an innovation he brought in.
Levi: Innovation is a very flattering term.
Patrick: Innovation, yeah.
Levi: It’s important to think through the consequences of, like, pay 1% until your capital costs are totally recouped, because you can essentially extend your capital costs indefinitely.
Patrick: “Oh, we need an expansion to our project! Oh, well, that added another $500,000,000; I guess our capital costs aren’t paid off yet.”
Levi: And essentially, just make a calculation, like, “What tiny project do we need to include in our capital costs so that our tax rate doesn’t go up?”
Kate: So that’s bad for two reasons. It’s bad a) because the government isn’t getting the tax revenue it needs to actually fund public services, and it’s also bad because it means development in the oil sands happens, not in any kind of planned or rational or scientific way based off of need; all development is completely ad-hoc and at the whims of a system that makes no sense to begin with.
Will: Yeah, when the price of oil went up, you had this issue where, basically, everyone’s just trying to build as quickly as possible because of the great incentive to do so, and then it also drives labour costs up, it drives all the costs up across the province, and it’s actually super inefficient for the development of the oil sands because it really exaggerates the boom and bust cycle. So then they’re not building when prices of oil are low, and actually when other costs are cheaper; it just creates all these project bottlenecks.
Kate: It also literally exaggerates the spatial arrangement of the oil sands. Like, the oil sands are spatially worse than they would be without this royalty regime because of the way people have constructed a built environment to take advantage of this royalty plan.
Will: And a lot of it on Indigenous land, too, as well.
Joel: Klein is also trying to spearhead attempts at healthcare privatization throughout his career, right? He spoke about — what it him who used the the language of a “third way” or something —
Will: Yes sir.
Joel: — for healthcare?
Kate: Yes. And you still hear that sometimes, a third way.
Will: Well, the UCP has brought it back up again.
Amir: What’s the third way?
Levi: Not private, not public, but —
Karen: But actually private.
Levi: — you skip the queue if you get some money, essentially.
Kate: It’s backdoor privatization. It’s selling off parts of our healthcare system.
Patrick: So that was Ralph Klein, Part 1. I think we’re doing Part 2 one of these days.
Levi: I’m upset that we went from something that was so exciting, like the Regina Manifesto, and I was so optimistic afterwards, to learning about this, and I’m just going to be mad for a couple days about it. Like — fuck.
Joel: And there were so many micro-scandals throughout this whole thing — like, this decade essentially — that were honestly hilarious — it’s hilarious to read about them, but they’re —
Kate: Yeah, there’s just this undercurrent of deep austerity that makes it hard to even laugh at Klein being such a fuck-up.
Levi: Mhm. Yeah.
Will: And he kept winning majority government after majority government.
Kate: Yes. Classic.
Will: But, at the same time, voter turnout was just going down and down and down. So he was winning majority governments with, like, 20% of eligible voters actually voting for him.
Joel: Alright. Concluding thoughts about Ralph Klein? The first decade of Ralph Klein.
Kate: I’m really mad.
Joel: What is the most outrageous thing that you learned about Ralph Klein in his early period up until about the year 2000? Patrick.
Patrick: The most outrageous thing about Ralph Klein is something we didn’t even have the chance to talk about, and that is how the flat tax affects people. Basically, 10% flat tax — in most other provinces, minimum bracket is 5, 6, 7%, so the Alberta Advantage is that poor people have higher income taxes than anywhere else in the country. That is one of the most outrageous things about Ralph Klein to me.
Amir: I honestly didn’t know much, so most of the stuff you guys were talking about was new, but what was very insane for me is how the stars aligned for this dude and everything good that happened to Alberta had nothing to do with him, and he actually fucked up, and he still is remembered like this great person, and I still don’t understand. Like, you cannot understand as an outsider unless you’ve had this socialized into you because of your family or something, you know?
Levi: The initial round of budget cuts that not only were extraordinarily cruel and unnecessary at the time, but that we’re still dealing with the consequences of them today. And they’re horrible and disgusting and are still celebrated, which makes it even worse.
Karen: I guess it’s similar to what Levi was saying; it’s that, growing up in Eastern Canada and the Maritimes, you think that, in Alberta, everything’s paved with gold, you get free money, children get free money, so that’s something to imagine as a young person in another part of the country, but learning about the budget cuts, and the reality, and discussing with friends and things that had grown up here and had their parents rely on the food bank and things; that’s quite a reality check.
Will: 5000 students who lined up to give Ralph Klein the finger. That’s pretty awesome. Like, for budget cuts.
Levi: Yeah, that’s pretty rad.
Kate: I love them.
Levi: The kids are good.
Kate: Selling off all those public services, to me, is so despicable, because those were ours and Ralph Klein took them from us. He literally took them out of our hands, and now we have to live with the consequences. And that is something that is unforgivable.
Joel: Yeah. Wow. So much to choose from. It would be that he blew up the place of my birth. I was born in the General Hospital, and he blew it up, so fuck you, Ralph Klein. Thank you for joining us for a delightful journey through the first decade of Ralph Klein. We’re all sad now because it sucked.
Amir: I have a question. Did Klein invent the “Alberta Advantage” phrase?
Amir: So is Klein our daddy?
Amir: Oh my god. Ralph Klein is our daddy.
Levi: Cut that. No, cut that. Cut that.
[outro music plays]