Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Friday, December 17, 2004

King Ralph

I tried to paint a portrait of Our Esteemed Premier last night in an attempt to convince a friend that, while the right wing in Canada are nowhere near as far right as their U.S. equivalents, they are no less crazy. She didn't seem to be buying it, but I was more than a little brain-dead after a long day of work and not terribly eloquent. I'm going to try to do a better job now.

Klein (whose name, incidentally, means 'small' in German, which he is not), the son of a professional wrestler, dropped out of high school before beginning his political life as the mayor of Calgary. Now, Alberta has a lot of oil, and the business end of things is primarily located in that city, so while he was mayor a lot of people moved there from the eastern parts of Canada. As the most visible civic politician, did he roll out the welcome mat for them? Of course not -- he preferred to refer to them as "eastern bums and scums" and blamed them for straining the city's social services.

He was elected member of Alberta's Legislative Assembly in 1989 and immediately became Minister of the Environment, setting the stage for his future opposition to the Kyoto Accord. He became premier (the Canadian equivalent of the American governor) of Alberta in 1992 and has sat on the throne ever since. In a reference to the Hollywood film of the same name, he has been dubbed 'King Ralph,' due primarily to the uniquely Albertan penchant for electing political dynasties. After he assumed office, Klein passed a law mandating a balanced budget and requiring that three-quarters of any budget surplus be used to pay off debt. Despite the fact that Alberta was and remains Canada's wealthiest province, this was a heavy blow, and healthcare and education funding were the first things to suffer.

Klein's approach to governance may be draconian, but it's his personality, not his policies, that he's best known for. His "colourful" behaviour from his stint as Calgary mayor only got worse after he made the switch into provincial politics. Among his most shining moments:

  • Just before Christmas one year, he dropped by an Edmonton homeless shelter, extremely drunk, and verbally abused the residents, offering them all "bus tickets to Vancouver" where they could enjoy the superior social assistance of the province of British Columbia. After the story broke, he admitted that he was an alcoholic (not news to anyone who had ever seen him in public) and vowed to do his best never to drink again.

  • When a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Alberta, he stated openly that the rancher in question should have "shot, shovelled and shut up."

  • In an apparent attempt to recover from his early educational deficiencies, Klein decided to get a communications degree at Athabasca University's Edmonton campus. This would have been a noble effort if he hadn't been caught plagiarizing huge portions of an essay he turned in about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

  • He does seem to know something about Pinochet, though -- in a debate on the floor of the legislature, he compared the notion of government-run car insurance to Chile's Salvador Allende nationalizing the country's copper mines. After this socialist horror, Klein said, Pinochet was "forced to mount a coup."

  • One fine spring day, Ralph decided to take a private government plane clear across the country to a golf resort, where he apparently had important golf-related meetings with various business leaders. When questions arose about whether his party or the taxpayers had funded the trip, one of the other members of the legislature suggested that he provide receipts to back up his statements. He became belligerent, repeating "Is she calling me a liar?" and "You don't believe me?" at least five times before finally saying that he'd consider her request.

  • He grudgingly attended an all-premiers' health summit with the Prime Minister in Ottawa during the 2004 provincial election, but left in the middle of a pre-summit dinner in order to go gambling at a casino across the river in Quebec. He also left the summit after only one day, insisting that "there's no bloody votes down there anyway."

  • During the same campaign, when two Albertan women complained to him that their monthly disability payments were barely enough to live on, he accused them of "yipping" and said they "didn't look severely handicapped" to him because they were both wearing cowboy hats and smoking cigarettes. He subsequently stated that his government would weed out "undeserving" people who were "abusing the system." When asked about this incident, he insisted that nobody who was "normal" would even want to talk about this issue.

  • A fierce opponent of same-sex marriage, Klein at first insisted that there should be a nationwide referendum on the issue. Since that didn't fly, he's now decided to take a trip across Canada trying to stir up opposition and block passage of the federal government's forthcoming legislation making same-sex marriage legal across the country. But you know, he's not a bigot. He has "friends" who are gay and declares them to be "wonderful people." He's even stated that he feels that "gays and lesbians ought not to be discriminated against in any other form other than marriage." Thanks for clarifying that, Ralph.