Lougheed contemplates the future

Andrew Nikiforuk April 15 1985

Lougheed contemplates the future

Andrew Nikiforuk April 15 1985

Lougheed contemplates the future

Andrew Nikiforuk

As the longest-serving of Canada’s present political party leaders, Alberta’s Premier Peter Lougheed can cite an impressive list of achievements. When the provincial Conservatives elected the Calgary lawyer leader in 1965, he took over a moribund party that held not a single seat in the legislature. Now, 20 years and five elections later, Lougheed commands one of the nation’s most powerful provincial governments and a loyal caucus which occupies 75 of the legislature’s 79 seats. During his years in office Lougheed presided over an oil boom that gave his government the economic power to forge a strong national presence—and the profits to build an investment fund which now stands at $14.4 billion. Now, with one of the premier’s key goals accomplished—the initialling of an oil and natural gas agreement with Ottawa that met nearly all of Alberta’s key demands—there is speculation in political circles that the 56-year-old premier may resign this year.

Although Lougheed’s grip on the province’s political affairs remains as firm as ever, Albertans’ enthusiastic support for Western Canada’s most influential spokesman has been tempered by the length of his 13 V2-year reign as premier. There is growing disenchantment, particularly in northern Alberta, with the slow and uneven recovery of the province’s economy from the combined effects of the 1980 National Energy Program and the severe recession of the early 1980s. Observed Raymond Speaker, a former Social Credit cabinet minister and leader of the right-wing Representative Party: “People perceive the government as uncaring and unlistening. Combine that sentiment with the economic situation and then you have prime conditions for political change.” For different reasons, many of Lougheed’s own back-benchers are placing bets on his future while newspaper editorialists have speculated that he may be growing weary of his job.

But there were no signs of disenchantment when Lougheed’s Conservatives met for their annual party convention in Edmonton late last month. Lougheed announced that, having reached an energy agreement with Ottawa, the province now wanted the federal government to help make possible—presumably by providing favorable tax terms—a new oil sands upgrading project to significantly increase Alberta’s current heavy oil production of six million cubic metres a year. The premier suggested obliquely that the party should be ready

for a provincial election in 1986 but later told reporters an election call is possible for this year if “something unexpected happens.” In an apparent effort to dampen rumors that he is planning to step down, Lougheed told the

convention: “I hope I’m showing you that I’m enjoying the job. After 20 years this is the kind of party I’d like to continue to lead.”

In an interview with Maclean ’s before the convention, Lougheed said that he

would not make a decision on whether to give up his $77,000-a-year job and perhaps go into business as a consultant until September. “I still have quite a bit to do,” said the premier, who has been dropping vague hints of his political retirement for years. One item on his agenda is overseeing the preparation of about a dozen position papers that will spell out the details of the government’s proposed industrial and scientific development strategy for the province. The policy, which envisages the establishment of Crown corporations and the expenditures of government funds to promote energy, high-tech and agricultural research and development, has been criticized by some Conservatives in the province as a “blueprint for a socialist Alberta.” At the same time, Lougheed has taken on a new national role as a self-appointed champion of free trade, urging Ottawa to negotiate such an agreement with the United States. “The basic problem,” said Lougheed, “is that Canadians undersell their ability to compete in the world marketplace.” Many critics argue that Lougheed’s government has not done enough to cope with the province’s own economic problems. Even though last month’s energy agreement—which included crude oil price deregulation and the phasing out of Ottawa’s Petroleum and Gas Revenue Tax—will likely allow Alberta’s oil industry to keep at least $2 billion more in revenues this year, the outlook for other sectors is less optimistic. Unifarm, a group representing about 5,000 of the province’s financially squeezed farmers, predicts that high production costs and low commodity prices will cause net farm income this year to decline by about 30 per cent from 1984.

But perhaps the most pressing political issue in Alberta is unemployment. Compared to the 40,000 Albertans—3.7 per cent of the work force—who were out of work at the height of the oil boom in 1980, 148,000 Albertans—12 per cent of the labor force—were unemployed last month. New Democratic Party Leader Ray Martin says there is an intolerable contradiction between the growth of the province’s Heritage Savings Trust Fund and the fact that the unemployment rate in Edmonton, the provincial capital, stands at 15.5 per cent, the third-highest in the nation. “Something isn’t right,” said Martin, who argues that some money from the fund should be invested immediately in job-creating programs to stimulate employment. “It doesn’t take a political genius to figure that out.”

In the meantime, with more than half of the province’s 83,000 construction

workers unemployed, a number of them have formed a noisy lobby group called the “Dandelions”—so named because of the weed’s hardy and resilient properties. In the past two months scores of members wearing yellow paper dandelions have berated Conservative MLAs at riding meetings, demanding that the government create jobs. Said Walter Doskoch, a 59-year-old unemployed pipefitter in Edmonton: “We expect to lobby to beat hell until we can see some changes.”

The NDP has accused Lougheed’s government of having no immediate job creation plans, preferring instead to let an unfettered private sector generate more permanent jobs. The premier predictably responds to his economic critics by saying they are “absolutely wrong” and then rhymes off his own list of favorable economic statistics. He notes that the province has the highest average family income ($30,000), the lowest taxes and on a per capita basis the largest total investment in new construction in Canada. “Give me a province that can compete with the strengths, both existing and potential, of Alberta. I don’t see one,” the premier exclaimed. His critics, he suggested, “wished the economy was doing poorly because that might help them politically.”

Yet Lougheed and his ministers have found it harder to dispose of charges that the government has become a distant and insensitive monolith. Public indignation was reflected in letters to editors and on radio open-line shows last winter over the government’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into the con-

troversial case of the Edmonton-based Dial Mortgage Corp. Ltd., which a court declared bankrupt in 1981 and deprived hundreds of old-age pensioners and other investors of their savings. In February a provincial court dismissed charges of filing false and misleading statements in an investment prospectus against George de Rappard, a close

friend of Lougheed’s and deputy minister to the cabinet, and four other former Dial officials. The court ruled that the Alberta Securities Commission had waited beyond the statutory limit to lay the charges. Since then the government has steadfastly refused to investigate the matter any further. “This is only a symptom of the real problem, which is the arrogance of Lougheed and his ministers,” charged Calgary businessman Hal Schultz. When asked why the government would not hold an inquiry to clear the air, an irritated Lougheed replied: “Clear the air on what? We still work in our judicial system on the presumption of innocence. Period. Pull stop. ”

Despite such disparate grumblings, Lougheed’s Tories probably have little to fear from the province’s two opposition parties—the NDP and the Representative Party, which each have two seats in the legislature. What Alberta’s political scene lacks at the moment, notes George Hulmes, a University of Alberta political scientist, is a politician capable of rallying discontent against the government. “Our politics are so much focused on the leader, and there isn’t a political figure comparable to Lougheed,” said Hulmes. Even though the NDP is attracting a record number of candidates and crowds to its nomination meetings, Martin has yet to acquire the political savvy or appeal of his predecessor, Grant Notley, who died in an airplane crash last year.

If Lougheed decides to step down, there will probably be no shortage of contenders for the party leadership. Among the most widely mentioned prospects: John Zaozirny, the urbane and hardworking energy minister who negotiated last month’s Western Accord with Ottawa; Don Getty, the former Edmonton Eskimos quarterback who served as Lougheed’s energy minister from 1975 to 1978 and is now chairman of Alberta’s Nortek Energy Corp.; and Education Minister David King, who has assumed a high profile in the province as the Lougheed government carries out a back-to-basics reform of the public school system. While many political observers insist that Lougheed will resign this fall, others speculate that the premier’s love of sports—and the political spotlight—could tempt him to remain in office for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.“We hear a different rumor every day,” noted Martin. “Nobody knows. Maybe the premier doesn’t even know. We are going on the assumption that he’ll be leading the Tories in the next election.” For Alberta’s small and fractious political parties that might be the safest assumption of all.

Peter Stockland