THIS CANADA

Fighting decay in a once-great party

The Alberta Social Credit party is making a valiant effort to rebuild before it is too late

Gordon Legge November 23 1981
THIS CANADA

Fighting decay in a once-great party

The Alberta Social Credit party is making a valiant effort to rebuild before it is too late

Gordon Legge November 23 1981

Fighting decay in a once-great party

THIS CANADA

The Alberta Social Credit party is making a valiant effort to rebuild before it is too late

Gordon Legge

The homespun touches are an anachronism in the age of machine politics. At the door to the convention hall, the Social Credit Womens’ Auxiliary is selling rose-emblazoned china plates to raise funds. Eschewing modern tactics of media manipulation, oldtimers reckon it’s time to revive Social Credit study sessions, informal gatherings once used to spread the Socred gospel. A glance around the party’s annual convention in Edmonton late last month would indicate that support is literally passing away: despite a sprinkling of young people, most delegates are either retired or close to it. The words “moribund” and “blue rinse” have become clichés in describing the Socreds, and one pundit dismissed the gathering as the “last-gasp convention.”

No one was more aware than the delegates themselves of the decline in the fortunes of the once-great party. Garnering 20 per cent of the popular vote in the last election, it hasn’t elected a new member since 1971. Today the Socreds hold only four of the Alberta legislature’s 79 seats. With only two other opposition members, one NDP and one Independent, the party ranks as the official Opposition. But the four sitting Socreds are elected more out of personal popularity than out of loyalty to the party. One member, former leader Bob Clark, 44, retires on Nov. 30, and the

Socreds are expected to have a battle retaining his rural seat north of Calgary.

Yet hope, not desperation, characterizes the party today. In a packed session of the convention, the greying faithful who during the Depression helped elect “Bible Bill” Aberhart and who had kept his successor, Ernest Manning, in power for 25 years, listened attentively to advice from Manning’s son Preston, 39. He predicts that in the ’80s, the governing party, the Progressive Conservatives, will need to undergo a face-lift, with a new leader and a rejuvenated packet of policies. If it fails to do so, then the door will be open for another party. Since

neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats are given much hope of forming a strong opposition in right-wing Alberta, there are only two alternatives: a western separatist party — a serious but unthinkable proposition, says Manning — or a revitalized Social Credit party, shorn of the last vestiges of its “funny money” theories. “If you remain a traditional opposition party, you’re in for a very grim future,” he warned. “If you can transform yourself, who can tell what the future can have to offer?” The task appears herculean, and yet the party has more energy to tackle problems than it has had in years. Key members working the back rooms are making a valiant effort to overcome 10 years of stagnation. At the centre of this new thrust is Rod Sykes, 52, the combative former mayor of Calgary. Despite promising his family he wouldn’t reenter politics, Sykes ran for the leadership a year ago, after Senator Ernest Manning persuaded him to enter. Sykes doesn’t have a seat in the legislature, and the party, which has just rid itself of a $250,000 debt, can’t pay him. So he spends half his week working as an investment consultant to support his family and the other half attending to party business. His critics brand him acerbic and abrasive, calling his taste for confrontation counterproductive to the compromise and conciliation that grease the wheels of government.

Yet these aggressive qualities are

just what the Socreds need. Until recently, they have been considered a weak opposition, far too slow off the mark and far too gentlemanly for the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate. Too often they have been shown up by the verbally adept NDP leader, Grant Notley. Sykes is a lifelong rebel, who learned as a child that “if you’re lighter and skinnier, you have to be smarter and faster.” His admirers see him as honest and forthright. (When he took over as mayor, he removed the door from his office.) They find his candor refreshing. “He actually takes a position, states it and sticks to it,” says ; house leader Ray Speaker. Looking very much like, and sometimes acting the part of a modern-day Don Quixote, he’s best known and liked for his enduring defence of ordinary citizens, the working class and minorities. In that sense, he shares the traditional populist concerns of the party. The Socreds can’t wait for him to win a seat in the legislature, since they think he will add new meaning to the word “opposition” in Alberta. “He’s not afraid of Lougheed, or any cabinet minister for that matter,” says Speaker, who chaired Sykes’s leadership campaign. “He can intelligently argue a case. You can feel the confidence.”

In turn, Sykes is drawing on his friends from the mayoralty days to bolster the party organization. People such as Reagh Burgess, 34, a former social worker turned activist turned developer and businessman, are devoting much of their time to helping the Socreds. Burgess organized the convention, and brought along a team of resource people for the policy workshops — educators, economists, small businessmen — to participate and listen, placing the fresh faces where they could have some influence. With a provincial election expected next spring, a year ahead of schedule, Burgess is now selecting a committee to develop a campaign kit for candidates that will include pamphlets on financing and campaign strategy, policy papers and speeches and election posters.

In the event of an election, the Socreds plan to stake out the centre by promoting free enterprise while protecting the rights of the individual. They are endeavoring to paint the Lougheed administration as left-leaning Big Government favoring Big Business, run by a private club of close friends for the benefit of a privileged few. After 10 years in power, they say, “Peter has peaked” and it’s time to knock “the King” off his throne. They see discontent surfacing in a province where, until recently, it has been disloyal to criticize the Tories, who were busy defending all Albertans from the encroachment of Ottawa. They will at-

tempt to convince voters that, over the years, the Tories have been corrupted by the power they wield, distancing themselves from the public, neglecting social services, and becoming increasingly disdainful of criticism.

The Socreds are stepping up their contribution to that criticism. They have taken aim at the Heritage Fund, pointing out that the fund’s $9.5 billion isn’t boosting the quality of life for the average citizen. Setting a precedent, the party has withdrawn $20,000 from official Opposition funds, drawn from public money, to record a 30-second television spot. It shows a young child with his grandfather unable to locate the opening of a blue Heritage Fund piggy bank. The message: “The Heritage Fund should not be the government’s private piggy bank.” Recently Socreds joined other opposition members to stage a filibuster to force the government to become more open in its management of the fund. When a judicial inquiry was called to investigate possible cabinet leaks and influence peddling surrounding a provincial land bank and annexation scheme near Edmonton, the Socreds hired a hard-hitting Calgary criminal lawyer to represent them.

Within their own organization, they are out fund raising almost every day. Looking for $500,000 to run an election campaign, they are calling on friends as well as companies and individuals disenchanted with the Lougheed government — small oil industry service companies, for instance. Sykes charges that some refuse to help, not because they disagree with the Socreds but because their donation, as a matter of law, will become public knowledge, resulting in lost government contracts. At the same time they are searching for high-calibre, credible candidates such as Joe Palyga, the former head of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, now living in Calgary. And they are schooling themselves in the techniques of modern electioneering.

The fact that their followers are few and far from young leaves them undaunted. “It will be an agonizing rebuilding process, but we have to show evidence of change if we are to win the public’s confidence,” Sykes says. However, the party’s clarion call at the conference did not come from Sykes, but from Senator Manning. Stepping up to the podium at the conference opening, the revered 73-year-old elder statesman of Alberta politics drank in the applause before launching into a stirring cry for change in the party. “There is an urgent need for an alternative to be in place as and when the public demands new leadership and new approaches. We will not attain our goal by living in the past. This is not 1935. This is 1981.”