I have three questions for Ralph Klein's admirers in both of our major provincial parties.
First, wasn't it a good investment for federal and provincial governments
to lavish money upon the City of Calgary for the 1988 Olympics, even though
they were both up to their eyeballs in debt at the time? Should they really have waited until they had paid down their debts first, as Klein would later say about public infrastructure spending (though not when he was the Mayor of Calgary and gratefully accepting this money)?
Second, why is it wrong to mortgage our children's future through fiscal
means, but perfectly okay to mortgage our childrens' future by using up the
revenue from their non-renewable resources to subsidize current consumption
through lower taxes and paying off debts incurred in the past?
Third, do Martha and Henry wait until their mortgage is completely paid off
before buying things that will advantage their kids' health, education,
welfare and happiness? Do they even sell many of their most precious assets in order to do so? If not, then why should our government?
Ralph Klein was one of those larger-than-life figures who emerges in politics from time to time, a populist politician with the common touch who respected everyone who was willing to do an honest day's work. His strong personal conviction, his determination to do what he set out to accomplish and to brave the political risks of doing so--and his deep personal humility, as when he confessed to his drinking problem after the unfortunate incident in an Edmonton homeless shelter--all point to the verdict that he was a great person.
But was he truly a great premier? Preston Manning and Danielle Smith certainly think so. They point to his fiscal record and his willingness to cut services and experiment with health care in order to eliminate the debt without raising tax rates as a great achievement which "left Alberta stronger than when he found it". (Did it?)They see him as second only to Ernest Manning as the greatest premier in Alberta history. Premier Alison Redford also greatly admires Klein, both as a politician and as a human being, but has also implicitly criticized his one-dimensional prioritizing of deficit elimination in her references to the neglect of infrastructure spending during the past decade--a neglect that she is trying to remedy now, even at the cost of once more going billions of dollars into debt.
Clearly then, the debate over Ralph's policies, and whether he was as good or better than Peter Lougheed as a model to follow, is more than just a parlour game for political junkies. For Alberta's choice of heroes lies at the very heart of what is currently at issue in Alberta public policy and politics.
My own view is that Klein's stress upon the single overarching goal of debt elimination, while impressive as an accomplishment and obviously beneficial in certain respects, was not the wisest strategy for the government, then or now. Debt reduction should be a predominant goal when debt-to-GDP is either comparatively or historically high. But once it is under control, other goals--such as building new infrastructure for Canada's richest and still fast-growing province, replenishing Alberta's Heritage Trust Fund for future generations, reducing dependence on energy revenue and investing in other potential sources of comparative advantage for the province--become relatively more important. Low taxes, low royalties, and low debt are important aspects of Ralph Klein's legacy. But so too are the depleted Heritage Fund, half a billion dollars' worth of unrepaired and unrenovated schools in Edmonton; an un-twinned and potholed highway to Fort McMurray; and the current attack upon Alberta's universities.
Premier Redford got off to a rocky start when she tried to combine a Klein-like dependence upon energy revenues with a very un-Klein-like optimism about the price of oil. Now she combines Klein-like flat income taxes along with no PST or medical premium, all the while insisting, pace Peter Lougheed, that billions must be spent on infrastructure ("paying for schools without paying for teachers to work in them," as one friend of mine put it.) She cannot have it both ways, as Ralph Klein did when he was mayor and debt-ridden federal and provincial governments lavished infrastructure money upon his city for the 1988 Olympics; for the most part, she has to raise her own taxes.
She should realize that she cannot win the race with Danielle Smith to be a Ralph Klein -clone. Nor should she want to. Her task is to remind Albertans that it is Peter Lougheed, not Klein or Manning, who deserves to be remembered as its greatest premier.