Ralph Klein, Alberta’s Deficit Fighting Ex-Premier, Dies

Ralph Klein, the former Alberta premier who led the oil-rich Canadian province to 13 consecutive budget surpluses and paid down government debt, sparking a nationwide trend, has died. He was 70.

Klein’s death was confirmed in a statement today by Alison Redford, the current premier of the province. The former leader had been diagnosed with dementia and a lung disease linked to smoking, according to newspaper reports.

“Ralph Klein’s ability to connect with Albertans from all walks of life was absolutely remarkable,” Redford said in the statement. “Ralph was a staunch defender of our province as he had a deep and abiding love for Alberta and Albertans.”

Klein became the 12th premier of Alberta in 1992 as leader of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, serving until he retired in 2006. During his tenure, he reduced the province’s deficit by cutting health-care spending, firing nurses and demolishing the Calgary General Hospital. His policies preceded efforts by the federal government to tackle Canada’s national deficit, which rose to 8.6 percent of gross domestic product in 1985, according to federal government data.

“Ralph was determined that the first problem he was going to deal with was the budget, the deficit and accumulated debt, which he did,” said Barry Cooper, a University of Calgary political science professor who co-wrote the book “Governing in Post-Deficit Times: Alberta in the Klein Years” in 2000.

“It was a populist restructuring that Ralph Klein accomplished,” Cooper said in an interview on March 21.

Working Class

Ralph Phillip Klein was born on Nov. 1, 1942, in Calgary, Alberta’s largest city, and was raised by his grandparents in a working class neighborhood. He dropped out of high school to enlist in the Canadian Air Force, according to a government biography. After his military service, he completed high school and studied accounting and business administration at Calgary Business College.

He remained in Alberta, doing public relations work at the Red Cross and United Way from 1963 to 1969. Klein spent the next 11 years working as a reporter for CFCN, a television and radio company, covering municipal politics.

Klein entered politics in 1980, when he was elected mayor of Calgary, home to Canada’s oil and gas industry. He was re-elected twice and served until 1989. While he was mayor, he oversaw Canada’s first Winter Olympic Games, in 1988, and the construction of Calgary’s modern light-rail commuter system, the nation’s first.

After being elected to Alberta’s legislature in 1989, Klein was appointed as the province’s environment minister and became premier in 1992.

His most notable achievement may have come on July 12, 2004, when he announced that Alberta had retired the last of its $23 billion debt from a decade earlier, helped by rising oil and gas prices.

Failed Effort

As part of a deficit reduction policy, Klein’s government passed a balanced budget law meant to avoid future budget gaps. The measure didn’t work. Subsequent governments, including that of Alberta’s current premier, Alison Redford, have posted budget shortfalls after failing to account for falling prices of Canadian crude oil and the recession that ended in 2009.

Klein achieved “astonishing political success,” Kevin Taft, a former Alberta Liberal Party leader wrote in his 1997 book “Shredding the Public Interest.” The former premier lowered per-capita spending on health care and other public programs to levels comparable to the poorest parts of the country, Taft wrote.

Throughout his political career, Klein was controversial. As premier, in 2001 he visited a homeless shelter in Edmonton and berated the residents to get jobs, throwing money at them.

Admitting Mistakes

Klein apologized for the episode and Albertans largely forgave him, according to Cooper. “Almost unique in Canadian politics, when he made a mistake, he admitted it, and his popularity went up,” Cooper said.

In 1982, when he was mayor of Calgary, he blamed “bums and creeps” from eastern Canada for aggravating a housing shortage and increasing the city’s crime rate.

He left politics in 2006, succeeded as premier by Ed Stelmach, after 45 percent of his party’s members voted for a leadership review, marking Klein’s lowest level of support.

After his departure, he worked as a business adviser at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, a Toronto-based Canadian law firm with offices across the country.

Klein is survived by his wife, Colleen.

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