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Albertans should turf Ralph, but they won't

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

As Albertans head to the polls on November 22, the only real question about the results is how large a majority Premier Ralph Klein and his Conservatives will win. Media coverage of opposition leaders Kevin Taft (Liberal) and Brian Mason (NDP) contain tepid praise, while noting plainly that they don’t “have a hope in hell of being elected premier.”

In 2001, the last time they voted, they handed the Conservatives 74 of 83 seats and 62% of the voted. The Alberta Conservatives have won ten straight elections and have been in power with majority governments since 1971. Before 1971, the Social Credit was in power with majority for 37 years, winning nine consecutive elections. Clearly the people of Alberta are happy with their government or too lazy to bother changing it. Then again, governing a province that sits atop the largest oil reserves in North America is relatively easy – Klein refers to it as “running on autopilot”.

In any other jurisdiction, a premier that followed Klein’s play book would be turfed out of office with a vengeance. But, Klein is able to barge into a homeless shelter and drunkenly berate its residents. He is able to use a plagiarized essay (and not a very good essay at that) to defend his bizarre praise for one of the most brutal dictators in history. He can walk out of a health summit early in order to go gambling. He can make jokes about severely disabled people and then say that “severely normal” people were not offended by his remarks. He can openly back an American war in Iraq that a large majority of Canadians and even a majority of Albertans oppose. He and his ministers can be involved in conflict of interest scandals that rival Shawinigate and the sponsorship scandal. He can scream at opposition politicians and end press conferences with by saying that he has “enough of this crap”. He can do all of these things and voters will seemingly shrug and say, “That’s just Ralph.” The man is untouchable.

What is most appalling about this apparent one-party rule in Alberta is that certain Albertans – most notably Stephen Harper and his advisor Tom Flanagan – have criticized other parts of the country for perpetuating the last decade of Liberal rule in Ottawa. As blogger CalgaryGrit notes: “The same things that cause Albertans to spit at Jean Chretien and Paul Martin are being seen in the Klein government. Yet there seems to be a general sense that the electorate will [re-elect Klein and the Conservatives] again, as they always do. It’s an odd double standard.”

In a 1997 article in the now-defunct magazine The Next City, Harper and Flanagan lamented that “Canada may well remain something near a benign dictatorship. In 1995, one of us (Harper) warned that Canada might enter a one-party-plus phase, with the Liberals the only broadly based party, and the other parties representing more narrow regional, ethnic or ideological constituencies. Beneath the textbook label of having a two-party-plus system of government (the Liberals and the PCs, plus the NDP), Canada has long been moving away from democracy…. But those who view a second Liberal majority as a momentary opportunistic success, or as the tit for the tat of two consecutive Mulroney governments, profoundly misunderstand history. The Liberals and the Conservatives don't alternate in their control of the Canadian Parliament. For a hundred years since 1896, Liberal government has been the rule, their opposition habitually weak, and alternative governments short-lived.” Gosh, Harper must be downright appalled at the state of politics in Alberta.

In December 2000, Harper penned an op-ed in The National Post (headed “Separation, Alberta-style: It is time to seek a new relationship with Canada”). He wrote that “For many of us, this federal election has stripped away any veneer of openness to reforming Canada. Those who conceived the Reform party, and helped nurture it through its transformation to the Alliance, have not discovered a path to power; they have hit a wall. This is perhaps not surprising. Alberta and much of the rest of Canada have embarked on divergent and potentially hostile paths to defining their country.”

Veteran CBC Radio reporter Scott Dippel sums up the pending vote in Alberta as follows: “Isn't that [voters rejecting change in favour of ‘the devil they know’] what happened in the federal election last June? The Liberals are caught red-handed in a huge sponsorship contract scandal, but still manage to avoid a trip to the opposition benches. Conservative campaign mistakes or a remark from Ralph Klein might have been factors. But as Joe Clark predicted, voters took the devil they know and not the devil they don't. Obviously, the status quo is just fine with a majority of Albertans. The opposition parties can suggest changes, but it appears the people aren't interested in change. Perhaps the next logical step in Alberta politics is to not bother with elections, as long as the economy chugs along.”

In other words, the sad reality is that Alberta insists on repeatedly electing tired and corrupt Conservative governments, while Canada as a whole repeatedly elects tired and corrupt Liberal governments. Perhaps the paths of Alberta and the rest of Canada aren’t really all that “divergent and hostile” after all.

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