Rahim Mohamed: You, Madam Premier, are no Ralph Klein
Danielle Smith comparing herself to Ralph Klein is, in fact, a bit like Dana Loesch comparing herself to Hunter S. Thompson
By: Rahim Mohamed
Danielle Smith closed her recent televised address to Albertans with a few well-chosen, and seemingly sincere, words of reflection about her history of making controversial and dubious statements in public fora.
“I know that I’m far from perfect and I make mistakes,” she told her fellow Albertans, conceding that she “sometimes took controversial positions” in her former life as a radio-talk-show host and media commentator. She stressed that many of her most extreme beliefs have “evolved or changed” as she’s “grown and learned” from listening to other perspectives.
This was an astute show of humility for Alberta’s new premier. Albertans are suckers for a good redemption story and will be feeling especially charitable heading into the holidays — ‘tis the season for second chances!
All would have been hunky-dory if she’d left it at that. However, true to her history of never quite knowing when to stop talking, she ended the address with a bizarre nod to the last leader of Alberta who had a professional background in mass media.
“[W]hen I’m wrong or make a mistake, I will look to follow the example our dear departed friend Premier Ralph Klein. Admit it, learn from it, and get back to work.”
This was an obvious reference to Klein’s penchant for using public displays of contrition to get himself through tight spots during his 14-year run as premier. An emotional, “red-faced” apology famously helped Klein survive the political fallout from a bizarre late-night confrontation at a Calgary homeless shelter in the winter of 2001. (Klein cruised comfortably to his fourth straight majority government three years later).
But the comparison also hinted that Smith sees herself as a social-media age Ralph Klein: an uncompromising, if flawed, contrarian voice whose hardheaded compulsion to speak truth to power at times led her up blind alleys (and down YouTube rabbit holes).
A cursory glance at the respective professional biographies of Klein and Smith reveals this comparison to be totally bogus. The two may have both spent time in front of a microphone, but their similarities end there.
Danielle Smith comparing herself to Ralph Klein is, in fact, a bit like Dana Loesch comparing herself to Hunter S. Thompson. There’s simply no parallel between the two as media figures.
Let’s start with Ralph Klein.
Before getting into politics, Klein spent a decade honing his craft as a serious journalist, eventually becoming one of the most trusted voices in Calgary’s local media. He was a newsman’s newsman; a genuine shoe-leather reporter who was unafraid to follow a story to the dingiest, most dangerous corners of the city.
Klein’s reporting often put him in close quarters with drug dealers, pimps, gang members, and other dangerous elements. He was, notably, a mainstay at biker bars, eventually winning the trust of members of the Hells Angels and other outlaw motorcycle gangs. His liaisons with bikers led to a series of compelling and critically acclaimed news pieces about the biker subculture — and an equally compelling set of war stories to go with them.
Through his years working the urban beat, Klein regularly told the stories of the “invisible” Calgarians who didn’t see any benefits from the 1970s oil boom. His work evinced a genuine concern for the “little guy,” publicizing challenges faced by Chinese immigrants, local sex workers, the Indigenous, and other downtrodden groups.
Klein’s most important piece of journalism was arguably a scathing 1977 documentary that exposed the abysmal living conditions on the Siksika Reserve, located about 100 kilometres to the east of Calgary. The award-winning documentary brought newfound attention to the plight of the Siksika people and spurred a lifelong connection. Klein was later adopted into the Siksika Blackfoot Nation, becoming just the second white person to join the tribe.
Danielle Smith’s time in the media played out somewhat differently, generating fewer accolades and (substantially) more errant soundbites.
While Klein used his media career as a springboard into politics, it was the other way around for Smith. A tumultuous 11-month stint as a trustee with the Calgary Board of Education put Smith on the radar of the Calgary Herald, who hired her as an opinion writer in late 1999.
From her early days as columnist, Smith showed an affinity for contrarian takes that were less than factually grounded. For instance, a 2003 article published under her byline asserted that “evidence shows that moderate cigarette consumption can reduce traditional risks of diseases by 75 percent or more.” (The piece didn’t say where this “evidence” came from.)
Smith’s talent for provocation made her a natural fit for talk radio, where she’d work on-and-off before leaving the media in 2006 to become the Alberta director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Following a near decade-long hiatus, Smith returned to talk radio in 2015, accepting an on-air position with Calgary’s CHQR. This was after her disastrous floor-crossing escapade, which ended with her failing to win a Progressive Conservative nomination for that year’s provincial election. The one that crowned the NDP with a majority government. Meanwhile, CHQR soon gave Smith her own daily talk show.
Smith could not have timed her return to media any better. She fit in perfectly with a burgeoning right-wing-media ecosystem. She was an early foe of “cancel culture,” a bête noire of the online right, notably interviewing ex-UCP candidate Caylan Ford shortly after she stepped aside amidst allegations of white nationalism (disclosure: Caylan is a friend of mine, and not a racist).
Smith also instinctively understood the new media landscape, effectively using Twitter, podcasts, and other digital platforms to grow her brand.
But social media — a landscape that famously lacks an edit feature — proved to be a double-edged for the unfiltered Smith. The misinformed tweets and unscripted livestream moments started to pile up, coming to a head with the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in the spring of 2020. (Smith tweeted in March that Hydroxychloroquine was a 100 per cent cure for COVID.)
Smith would go on to quit her talk show in early 2021, pinning her departure on “the mob” of online trolls; thus bringing a rather undignified end to her second run as a media commentator.
Ralph Klein’s celebrated career as a hardboiled urban reporter bears little resemblance to Smith’s erratic on-and-off run as a loose-lipped agent provocateur. It’s an absurd comparison and Smith should stop making it.
Madame Premier, I did not know Ralph Klein. I did not serve with Ralph Klein. Ralph Klein was not a friend of mine (although he certainly would have made a great drinking buddy). I can nevertheless say with total certainty that you, ma’am, are no Ralph Klein.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, and the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
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