Brian Mulroney’s secret political agenda—becoming more visible as the implications of the recent Western Accord begin to unfold—is to forge an alliance between Quebec and the West designed to keep him in power for at least the next dozen years.
As unlikely as that prospect may sound, it is precisely the formula that maintained Mackenzie King as Prime Minister of Canada over most of three decades. One side of the equation—the transformation of Quebec from the safe haven of Canadian Liberalism to a dependable bastion of Toryism—is in the process of being consolidated. A recent public opinion poll taken by the PCs indicates that nearly two-thirds of Quebecers now consider themselves to be Conservatives federally. The same survey placed the Liberals in the Prairies at an all-time low of nine per cent.
The man who stands in the middle of this political turnabout is Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who told me in a recent interview, “If Brian can carry off that kind of coalition he is going to be in power for 12 years, easy.”
The longest serving and most solidly entrenched of Canada’s premiers, Lougheed is a happy man. “We’re in control of our own situation,” he said. “The party has never been stronger than it is now. I feel good about what we’ve been able to accomplish. I feel good about the new Prime Minister and what we’ve won in the Constitution—the protection of our resources. Above all, we’ve got the energy accord, which has struck out the view that a federal government can unilaterally impose its policies over resources owned by the provinces.” Lougheed regards the Western Accord as Mulroney’s greatest accomplishment: “If he had reneged on that commitment it could have been the start of a very serious political process, not so much in furthering western separatism as forcing Westerners to develop their own political factions. After the Trudeau government put in the National Energy Program I said it would be 20 years before the Liberals were elected in Alberta again. Then, John Turner made some astute comments and I thought it would be earlier. But since the Liberal leader’s negative reaction on the energy accord, maybe my 20 years was right.” Like most of the premiers, Lougheed was delighted with the Regina conference last February, not so much because of any concrete accomplishments but
because of the attitudinal change brought about by Mulroney’s penchant for creative reconciliation. “The difference is in the way we’re dealing with our differences,” Lougheed said, “without acrimony, trying to listen to each other’s point of view and then strive for a consensus. That and the attitude of the chairman—the Prime Minister—as the catalyst. There is an incredible difference between Regina and, say, three years ago, at the previous conference on
the economy with Mr. Trudeau. Mulroney is a great chairman.”
Lougheed’s mood of euphoria is not without a few dark-lined clouds: the fact that the chances of getting an elected, effective Senate with equal representation from the provinces appears as slim as ever; the fact that agriculture still ranks far too low on the federal priorities agenda; and the fact that the Crow
freight rate changes will benefit the railways more than the producers. But Lougheed’s most pressing concern is to push the idea of free trade between Canada and the United States. He is awaiting the report of the Macdonald commission on the economy, expected in June, so that he gets some nonpolitical ammunition for the national speaking tour he is planning for the fall to push his cause. “Free trade with the United States,” he maintains, “has to be comprehensive, just like the European Common Market. The problem is that the bureaucrats in Ottawa are still mesmerized by the Pearson era and are looking toward GATT for the solution.”
The autumnal free trade crusade is probably a lost cause, because Reagan no longer has the clout to deliver a deal really favorable to Canada and Mulroney is too politically savvy to risk anything less. But Lougheed will not give up easily.
His main legacy in his home province has been to shift the centre of Alberta politics from the right (where it was embedded by 30 years of Social Credit rule) more to the middle, thus avoiding the extreme polarization currently plaguing British Columbia. “I just hope,” Lougheed told me, “that whoever comes after me understands that, because the extreme right point of view just won’t wash in Western Canada.”
The fact that the Alberta premier talks openly about his succession is a new departure for a politician who in the past has projected the image of perpetual power. “We’re on a high at the moment, but if you have built something up like I have the key thing is to be able to develop the transition to another leader. That’s the question I have to resolve over the coming summer.”
Meanwhile, Lougheed remains an eternally optimistic salesman of Alberta as the fountainhead of all things bright and beautiful. “I was at a party of businessmen the other night,” he explained “and I said, you know what this country needs is to have more self-confidence, like the Americans have in their own country—and they all nodded. Then I said, and the one event that really gave the Americans that sort of final surge of confidence was the Olympic Games. And they all nodded. So I said, I hope all of you know that the event that’s going to do that for Canada is the next Olympic Games in my province in 1988. They had not realized that this was so, but I had them nodding—so they just had to keep nodding.”
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