Lougheed’s last hurrah

Gordon Legge October 18 1982

Lougheed’s last hurrah

Gordon Legge October 18 1982

Lougheed’s last hurrah


Gordon Legge

Proclaiming that “the sun is shining and we are in the mood,” Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed put an end to months of speculation and last week called an election for Nov. 2.But,even before the election writ was issued,there was virtual unanimity that the most durable of all western premiers would, once again, sweep back into office with an overwhelming majority. While debate rages across the harvest hustings about management of the economy, the federal-provincial energy agreement and the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, the question is not who will be the opposition, but whether there will be one at all.

Nonetheless, even Tory campaigners acknowledge an element of unpredictability that was not evident in the 1979 and 1975 elections. For one thing, recent polls show that between 25 and 30 per cent of the electorate is undecided, a reflection of concern for the economy in what was once thought to be a virtually recession-proof province. Furthermore, 11 years of Tory rule in a one-party state has bred the inevitable contempt that comes with familiarity. As well, there remains a feeling across the province that some voters are still searching—albeit in the dark—for a credible alternative. Striking up his own one-man band, New Democratic

Party Leader Grant Notley gave his view of the current mood: “I think there is an undercurrent of populism in Alberta, a feeling that it is time for the average man to be heard.” It was that mood which led to the stunning byelection upset in Olds-Didsbury last February by the separatist Western Canada Concept (WCC). Even if that undercur-

rent surfaces, it is not expected to alter the outcome substantially. But it would make the election more than a foregone conclusion.

The Tories offer a formidable challenge. They enter the election with a stranglehold on 73 of the legislature’s 79 seats. The remaining seats belong to Tom Sindlinger, a renegade Conservative who was expelled from the caucus in 1980 for publicly bickering about the party’s position on the Constitution, WCC Leader Gordon Kesler, NDP Leader Notley and three Social Credit members who formed the official Opposition but who now plan to run as Independents. In 1979 only eight of the Tories’ 74 winning candidates failed to poll more votes than their combined opposition.

But the autumn call showed that not even Lougheed was willing to chance another long, cold winter with little hope of an economic upturn. He began to set the stage for the election last spring with a $5.4-billion program in order to boost the ailing oil and gas industry, part 1 of his much touted Economic Resurgence Program. Part 2 came on Sept. 7, when Lougheed went on television with a flourish to announce a $l-billion package of mortgage aid and subsidized loans to small businesses and farmers, financed by the Heritage Fund. That was followed by help for the natural gas industry, a

$200-million Venture Capital Corp. and the creation of a task force to find a way of selling the government’s shares in Pacific Western Airlines to the private sector. In calling the election six months earlier than the usual four-year interval in Alberta, Lougheed deviated from his habitual springtime campaign, saying that he required voter approval to start distributing Heritage Fund money to today’s beleaguered consumer, rather than saving it for future generations.

Declaring that this is his last campaign as premier, Lougheed clearly intends to run on his record and not—as he did in his past two campaigns— against villainous Ottawa. Instead, with their slogan of “For Alberta,” the Tories are fighting naysayers who knock either Canada or the province’s place within it. The premier is portraying himself as a statesman on the high road, emphasizing the positive. As he noted in his low-key kickoff speech to 600 members of the Calgary Newcomers’

Club, “I have been so concerned that pessimism is, by its nature, self-fulfilling.” With reserved boosterism he will tell Albertans about the gains the province has made since he first arrived in office. And, using further glittering handouts during the course of the campaign, he will attempt to paint a bright future, one in which Alberta, and Albertans, will take the leadership role in Confederation.

So far, the opposition in Alberta has been both a curse and a blessing for the premier. Asked last summer if the government might have been better off with a stronger opposition, Lougheed answered: “On the one hand, our communication position would be easier. But,on the other hand, we faced some very grave confrontations and attacks by the federal government,and I think it has been important for the federal government to know that the government of Alberta has had strong support from the vast majority of the citizens of the province. They balance.”

No one knows at this point whether the support has weakened or whether the real threat to the party—if any—is coming from the right or the left side of the political spectrum. Certainly, the opposition forces, with a notable exception, have never been in such disarray. The once powerful Social Credit party

refuses to die a natural death but it is leaderless, debt-ridden and scrambling for candidates.

Meanwhile, the once vaunted WCC is floundering. Despite two purportedly unifying conventions during the summer, defections and resignations continue. Kesler, the party’s only sitting member, made a controversial switch to his home riding of Highwood from Olds-Didsbury, into which he had parachuted earlier in the year. Now he must try to win the new seat in the face of a strong challenge from Tory candidate Harry Alger. Meanwhile, there are few signs that Kesler’s party is gaining credibility. William Thorsell, the Edmonton Journal's assistant editor, ob-

serves: “The epochal crusade against anti-Alberta lucifers rampant on a field of socialist-imperialist red in Ottawa and Toronto is confined now to the peanut-brittle minds of the Western Canada Concept who, like boys clutching teddy bears, refuse to sleep without a nightlight against the bogeyman.”

The provincial Liberals are, by the admission of their affable leader, millionaire oilman Nick Taylor, out of money and ill-prepared to fight an election. Whereas the Alberta Reform Movement (ARM), a creation of Sindlinger’s, has yet to flex a muscle. Sindlinger, himself, faces a tough battle against another Tory candidate, popular Calgary Alderman Brian Lee.

Finally, the day after the election was announced, a brand-new group calling itself the Provincial Rights Association emerged and said that it will support Independent candidates who espouse its predominantely free-enterprise goals. Its president is Peter Aubry, a Calgary

oilman who pulled together 157 junior oil companies last October to lobby for two substantial changes in the AlbertaOttawa energy agreement. Among the candidates it supports are former Social Credit house leader Ray Speaker and the second-place finisher in the WCC leadership race, Howard Thompson, who resigned from the WCC executive two weeks ago, bringing many of his supporters with him. Although it is not a political party, the group comes closest to representing the concerns of disgruntled Albertans who do not see themselves as separatists. “We want to get our provincial government back on the right track, to have it run as a business, to get it out of private industry, to do something for the good of Alberta apd all Albertans—not just the good of government,” says Aubry. But whether or not it can mount a significant challenge in the compact 28-day campaign seems doubtful.

The only opposition party that was ready for the call was the NDP. Albertans, suspicious of anything that seems remotely socialist to them, have almost always ignored the NDP. But, with the right badly splintered, Notley thinks Albertans are ready to give his moderate brand of social democracy careful study. Describing himself as the proverbial _ underdog ready to battle 1 a“fat,out-of-shape, arrogant” incumbent, Notley has never been in better shape to fight an election. The NDP is mounting a $l-million campaign, with NDP workers and politicians from across the West—Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley among them—flying in to mainstreet. A key part of the NDP campaign is a series of slick television spots, one of which features a Tory politician obstructing the voters’ view inside the portals of power, while the announcer intones, “Tell the Tories it’s your government, not theirs.” Pundits calculate that the NDP could pick up as many as six seats, enough probably to give it official Opposition status. Six is the magic number that Lougheed secured in 1967, enough to give his youthful party the exposure that catapulted it into power in 1971. Pointing to the strong NDP presence in the other three western provinces, Notley believes that “if the NDP can’t make it this time, we never will.” Even in Alberta, opposition parties should never say never. But for Lougheed the horizon is still clear. C1