Since first hearing about it earlier this summer, I have been looking forward to reading Rich Vivone‘s book “Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar“. There has yet to be much of a post-mortem in print on the Klein years in Alberta, and as an insider to government I anticipated that Vivone would have much to say on the topic.
Rich Vivone spent 25 years in Alberta politics, from 1980-2005. For the first five he was the executive assistant to David King, MLA and Minister of Education. For the next twenty, he published the newsletter “Insight into Government”, reporting on activities in the Legislature and government.
His book is part memoirs and history of his years in politics, and parts a critique of the players past and present, along with recommendations on how to make things better.
I picked up the book at his book launch in Edmonton last Wednesday, and read it over the past few days.
The book launch itself was an interesting event. Rather than reading from the book, Vivone talked about how he got involved in politics (David King was a university friend, and convinced him to come work for him at the Leg), his impressions of the Wildrose Alliance win in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election (might be a flash in the pan), his thoughts on apathy in the province (the Tories encourage it, the opposition parties will merge, and once there is a one-on-one battle with the Tories, and people think the result could go either way, they’ll turn out), among other things. While I don’t agree with all of his arguments, they are certainly interesting and thought-provoking.
The Q&A was the most interesting part. People asked more about apathy and disengagement, and about what made politics in Alberta competitive for that brief window in the late 1980s and early 1990s (okay, the latter was my question). It also became a forum for people to talk about why they were frustrated with politics, and why they had given up after years of investing time and energy in the political system. This all culminated in David Carter, former Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, taking the floor and saying that while Lougheed and Getty came down on any MLA who talked about “power” or using it to their advantage, that went out the window with Premier Klein. In his words, and he said we can quote him, “Ralph was a dictator”.
As the Q&A/discussion was happening, I found myself thinking ‘is this the road to improving democracy in Alberta?’ By that, I don’t mean holding a series of book readings, but getting citizens together and giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns and frustrations. One of the drivers of apathy, in my opinion, is isolation, the instance where one isn’t connecting with others. Another is the feeling that nobody shares your concerns, and that your concerns won’t be listened to or given any thought. If we have more forums where people who are frustrated with politics in this province (and this country), can come together, it would be a positive thing. The dialogue coming out of them might lead to the ideas and actions that will change politics for the better.
Anyway, I promised a book review, so I should get to that. I have no reservations about adding this to my short list of ‘must-read’ books about Alberta politics. Mark Lisac‘s “Alberta Politics Uncovered” is the other one I definitely recommend. Vivone’s book is a series of essays which can be read as stand-alone pieces. They include a piece on his impressions of Premier Klein, an overview of the Getty years, topical pieces on the Oil Sands, Health Care, Scandals, the plight of the Alberta Liberal Party, Education and Children’s Services, and the issue of apathy. He closes with a piece on the failed Jim Dinning leadership campaign, and finally with an open letter to Premier Stelmach.
The book is worth reading for the anecdotes and historical value alone. It’s impossible to condense 25 years of experience into 250 pages, but Vivone does a good job of covering the major issues of his time. He also considers the causes of some of the dominant issues and events in Alberta politics, and in some cases prescribes solutions to them. I don’t agree with his analysis, but he makes an argument and attempts to justify it.
There are two themes I take umbrage with. First, I think he too easily lets the general public off the hook. He correctly surmises that the media and the powers that be have taken actions (intentional or not) that discourage participation, but doesn’t focus enough on the general population’s willingness to ignore politics, or to not engage and scrutinize the actions of the government and opposition parties. Second, his concept that “Ralph Could Have Been a Superstar” is somewhat undermined by his analysis of Ralph’s character and tenure as Premier. I agree with him that Ralph’s first term was his most successful (in terms of accomplishing his agenda, regardless of whether you agree with the aims or not) and he increasingly lost drift afterwards. However, he also describes this as a trait in Ralph’s personality – he needed a clear, concise goal to pursue. This, and an unwillingness to pursue largely controversial measures, held him back from pursuing and achieving greater things. (Note: Don Martin‘s book “King Ralph” also talks about Klein’s struggles with confrontation). Similar depictions colour the chapters regarding Jim Dinning’s loss in the 2006 leadership race, and the (so-far) unfulfilled potential of Premier Stelmach’s tenure. In a nutshell, what I feel Vivone is arguing is not that Ralph (or Ed) Could Have Been a Superstar, but that someone leading a government with tons of political capital and no serious opposition should be able to achieve more. It’s a story not so much about Ralph or Ed (or Jim), but our collective unfulfilled potential as a province.
Whether you agree with Vivone’s take on politics or not, this book, as I said, is a must-read if you’re interested in Alberta politics. Albertan or not, you will gain insight into where Alberta has come from politically in the past thirty years. Understanding our politics and where we’ve come from is key. If we want to make politics in the future better, we need to understand the history and circumstances that have led to where we are.