Alberta premier confidant of third term despite energy deregulation problems : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Ottawa Citizen

Alta Premier Ralph Klein confident of third term despite energy deregulation problems


EDMONTON (CP) - From the heady heights of a multibillion-dollar budget surplus to screams over electricity deregulation and private HEALTH 2000 has been a roller-coaster year for Alberta Premier Ralph Klein.

Now with a possible winter election on the horizon the pressure is on Klein to keep his government from lurching off track as the Tories approach their 30th year in power. "Obviously there are going to be mistakes made along the way," Klein said in an interview.

"Hopefully as we move along we can smooth out the bumps.

"Do you think I wanted this deregulation problem before an election?"

Alberta's plan to let the free market determine electricity prices was supposed to entice companies to build new plants that would supply plenty of cheap power that consumers once enjoyed.

The problem is that energy firms didn't build quickly or early enough - power plants take years to build - to meet the demands of Alberta's booming economy.

That has led to a tight supply, high demand and sky high prices.

Other factors such as mechanical problems at existing power plants and high natural gas prices contributed to a situation that has prompted the government to spend $2 billion to shield consumers from rate hikes.

Klein isn't apologetic. The decision in 1995 to deregulate was based on the government's philosophy that there isn't much the public sector can do that the private sector can't do better.

"People told us to get out of the business of being in business. This applied to registries, highway maintenance, liquor stores. And generally people said that about electricity, too.

"These (power) companies have said, 'We are private, many of us are shareholder-owned, why do we have to be regulated like a Crown Corporation?' "

Such faith in market forces is worrisome, especially when applied to a vital commodity as electricity, said Larry Phillips, president of the Alberta chapter of the Consumers Association of Canada, a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group.

The government's handling of such an important issue is bound to be on the minds of voters, he said.

"I think the energy costs will be front and centre," Phillips said.

"Even with the rebates people are going to realize that there is a real problem with how this has been managed. We would just like the government to plan and think through the consequences of what they do."

Another political headache for the government was the passage last spring of Bill 11 - a law that expands and regulates the role of private clinics in the health-care system.

As politicians debated the bill, thousands of Albertans showed up at the legislature night after night to protest against a law many felt could lead to a two-tiered system, where those who can afford to pay would get superior medical treatment.

While the Tories used their majority to cut off legislature debate and pass the law, Klein acknowledged the demonstrations made an impression.

"In my years of politics, I haven't seen protests so intense as they were over Bill 11. But now that the bill has been proclaimed and we see that the sky hasn't fallen, I think there is some acceptance and some understanding of what that bill is all about," he said.

"Hopefully there is some understanding."

On the financial front, the government is forecasting a budget surplus expected to exceed $5 billion thanks to burgeoning natural gas and oil revenues.

While some of the surplus has been spent on HEALTH education and energy rebates, the lion's share - $4.5 billion - has been earmarked to pay down Alberta's $12.3-billion debt.

Such wealth prompted the government to ask taxpayers through a province-wide mail out what it should do with future surpluses. The options included eliminating provincial income tax.

The prospect of leading a debt-free Alberta is the reason Klein wants to seek a third term, perhaps with an election call as early as February.

"I would like to leave as my legacy a debt-free Alberta. That is something that may be achieved in two years, maybe three."

With such deep pockets and an almost 30-year track record of voters choosing Tory majority governments, is there any way Klein can lose in 2001?

Liberal Nancy MacBeth, Alberta's Opposition leader, believes there is.

Despite the huge surplus the province has an acute shortage of doctors and nurses, parents are fundraising to pay for basic education services and electricity is no longer cheap and reliable, said MacBeth, a former Tory cabinet minister who lost the party leadership to Klein in 1992.

The government has become tired and just isn't doing a good job of providing the basic services Albertans need, she said.

"People are starting to say 'What is going on here?' " she said.

"Here is a government that people assumed would be managing and yet has been mismanaging these vitally important services."

Such issues probably won't be enough to dethrone a popular premier who is sometimes affectionately referred to as King Ralph, political observers say.

A government riding a strong economy and holding out tax cuts and a huge surplus will be hard to beat, said Linda Trimble, a University of Alberta political scientist.

Any political brush fires that pop up have been quickly doused with cold hard cash - including sending $300 in energy rebates to people aged 16 years and older.

The first $150 cheques - which morning DJ's at one rock radio station called "Klein cash" - showed up in mail boxes earlier this month. The second cheques are to be mailed after the expected March vote.

"Let's throw enough money at people so they will re-elect us," Trimble said. "I think that is the plan."

Klein, whose party holds 64 of Alberta's 83 seats in the legislature, said he looks forward to campaigning against MacBeth on a platform of providing good solid government.

He said while he respects his former cabinet colleague and believes she could perform well as premier, there is no doubt in his mind who is the best person for the job.

"I think she is strong enough," Klein said. "But I think I am just as strong if not stronger."

-- Rachel Gibson (, December 26, 2000

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