The Klein Achievement

110 pages,
ISBN: 0772786003

Right Turn:
How the Tories Took Ontario

188 pages,
ISBN: 1550022547

Ralph Klein:
A Maverick Life

203 pages,
ISBN: 1550544438

Post Your Opinion
Is West West and East East?
by Christina Blizzard

A federal state, such as Canada, can be very frustrating for its members, since it often seems almost impossible to come to any sort of unanimous agreement. However, this very diversity is also the greatest strength of federalism, as has been very evident in the past few years
In a unitary state like the United Kingdom, or a highly centralized federation like the United States, you usually have only two models from which to choose, and only one can be implemented. In Canada, by contrast, there are several different experiments going on at the same time.
During the Depression, when the only national choice seemed to be King or Chaos, Albertans chose a high school principal with no experience in government to implement a Social Credit program. A little less than a decade later, their neighbours in Saskatchewan elected the first social-democratic government in North America, and Tommy Douglas used his province to pioneer advances in the welfare state that were eventually accepted across the country. Just as controversially, Quebeckers over the past twenty years have chosen governments that combine social democracy with linguistic and cultural nationalism. In the past decade, the voters of Ontario have opted to give three different political parties a shot at governing.
By the 1980s, both the national and the provincial governments had become bloated and had gone deeply into debt. When recession hit in the early 1990s, the problem became a crisis. What was to be done? Across the country, responses differed. Frank McKenna in New Brunswick seemed to enjoy success with a highly activist and interventionist set of policies. In Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow reorganized government services and raised taxes. Jacques Parizeau argued that separation would eliminate costly overlaps in government services and bureaucracy and would make unnecessary any drastic restructuring.
Of all the experiments, however, the one that has attracted the greatest attention is Ralph Klein's in Alberta. Frank Dabbs, a Calgary journalist, has written a sympathetic biography of Klein, possibly as biased in his favour as Mark Lisac's The Klein Revolution was grounded in ideological hostility.
Dabbs's portrait of Klein's background and early life is smoothly written and interesting. His grandfather, a German chef, eventually made his way to Alberta where he made enough money to bring his British fiancée to join him. His son Philip prospered in construction, married, and in 1942 his wife Florence gave birth to Ralph Philip Klein.
Their marriage was not happy and Ralph Klein had an unsettled childhood. He went first into the air force and then to a small business college where he studied, then taught, and soon became principal. From there he moved into fund-raising and, after that, into journalism, covering municipal polities in Calgary. An almost whimsical decision led him to run for mayor in 1980 as an advocate for the underprivileged, and thus launched a political career that has taken him from success to success.
When he succeeded Don Getty in 1992 as the head of a tired Progressive Conservative party that had governed Alberta since 1970, it seemed as if he was destined to lead his party to inevitable defeat. Instead, aided by the gaffes of his opponents, he won a stunning victory and set about the job of restructuring Alberta and its government. With the help of strong oil and natural gas royalties, he cut deeply into the legacy of Peter Lougheed's interventionist Conservatism, and within three years Alberta had gone from a fiscally dangerous budget deficit to a surplus.
Although Dabbs continues the story of Klein's government into 1995, he loses his focus the closer he comes to the present. At this point, it would be better to turn to the University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper's The Klein Achievement. Although his monograph lacks Dabbs's grace of style, Cooper's analytical skills are much more finely honed. In his view, Klein's achievements have been substantial. He has not only reduced government spending; he is in position to reduce future debt charges by actually repaying some of the debt. Health care has been systematically restructured, welfare rolls reduced, and 90,000 new jobs created. Reform of regulation has diminished state intrusiveness in the daily lives of Albertans, and privatization has broken up public monopolies characterized by high costs and indifferent service.
Can the Klein achievement-or revolution-be transferred beyond the boundaries of Alberta? Or is that province too distinct a society? Cooper, with his trademark slightly superior Albertan sneer, assures the rest of us that we are not necessarily lacking in pride, self-respect, or the capacity for virtuous acts. We will, he counsels us, have to learn to do it on our own: "Albertans cannot help them with this effort, though they can wish them well by saying `look at what we have done. You can do it too.' "
Is Mike Harris merely a worthy Easterner, doing the best he can to imitate Alberta? Christina Blizzard's study of Mike Harris and the 1995 election campaign is one of the first to appear, and for that we should be grateful, but it is not much of a book. It reads as if it is a collection of undigested columns that she wrote while she was covering the campaign for the Toronto Sun, supplemented by the odd interview.
It does provide sufficient evidence to suggest that the Common Sense Revolution is a genuinely made-in-Ontario product, which shares a common approach with the Klein government, but which also faces different sorts of problems and, in many ways, more difficult ones. Klein faced a daunting enough task in restructuring a bloated government. Harris also has to deal with a rate of taxation he believes is harming Ontario's industrial competitiveness, and he can't reduce the welfare caseload by pushing recipients firmly toward the B.C. border.
It is too early to tell how successful a premier Mike Harris will be, but he, like Klein, is a natural, intuitive politician. He defied the conventional wisdom of political strategists by bringing out his Common Sense Revolution a year before an election was expected. He waged a high-risk campaign, which few people (apart from Harris himself) expected him to win. And win he did, in a solid and convincing fashion, easily overtaking the Liberals who had a 20 percent lead in the public opinion polls when the campaign began. There will be more and better books about Mike Harris and the CSR. In the meantime, let us be thankful that we live in a federal state. Let the experiments continue, so that we can learn from one another.

William Christian is co-author of Parties, Leaders, Ideologies in Canada (McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, 1996).


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