A Prairie titan steps down
He was the last titan to call it quits, one of four strongmen who dominated Canadian political life for almost a generation. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and three powerful premiers—William Davis of industrial Ontario, René Lévesque of autonomy-minded Quebec and Peter Lougheed of ambitious Alberta—towered over their contemporaries. They formed shifting alliances and waged epic struggles while they pursued their separate visions of the way Canada ought to be.
But one by one they chose to leave the arena. Trudeau resigned last year,
Davis stepped down in January, and Lévesque announced on June 20 that he was departing in September. Last week it was Lougheed’s turn. At the age of 56 and in full control of his party and his province, the Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta declared his intention to retire this fall from what he called “the best political job in Canada.”
Lougheed’s announcement that he will return to the private sector in an unspecified role set the stage for a summer leadership race. And as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney observed, “The departure of Mr. Lévesque, the departure of Mr. Davis and the departure now of Mr. Lougheed constitute profound changes of attitude, of personnel, of perception.” For Mulroney, the departures mean that he will appear less the neophyte in federal-provincial affairs.
Lougheed’s resignation day was as methodical as his years in office. There was a tight schedule rather than dramatic gestures and regrets. Last Wednesday began like most of Lougheed’s working days. Starting at 5:30 a.m. he phoned a dozen prominent Tories, rousing many from bed, to announce his decision and to wish them good luck should they decide to enter the leader-
ship race. Next, he met his party executive at 7:30 a.m. and declared that he would like the party to hold its leadership convention—he will have been in power 14 years as of Sept. 10—no later than the first weekend in November so his successor would have ample time to prepare for an election early in 1986. Then, at 9:30 a.m., Lougheed arrived at Government House, where he broke the news to his 75-member caucus. Finally,
at 11:30 a.m., flanked by his wife, Jeanne, 56, and their four children, he held a press conference. Although he declined to reveal his future plans, he rejected persistent speculation that he would accept an appointment as Canada’s ambassador to Washington. Said Lougheed, grinning: “I think they sense that I am not diplomatic enough.”
The premier, fulfilling a 1982 campaign vow, said that he would not seek re-election and will resign his seat in the legislature by the end of the year. He leaves Alberta’s economy in a slow climb after a two-year recession, but he leaves his party—which he rescued from oblivion in the 1960s—with a $l-million war chest. And he has taken pains to leave his successor “a clean
slate,” having worked hard in the past two months to announce a series of policy initiatives, ranging from reforms to the secondary school curriculum to new cuts in royalty taxes on gas and oil production to benefit the industry.
Lougheed’s evident resolve to leave a tidy desk was consistent with his overall career. During the 1970s, almost singlehandedly, he carried Alberta into the mainstream of Canadian life. Former
prime minister Joe Clark, a fellow Albertan whose relationship with Lougheed was often strained, declared, “We have become a modern province in the period of his premiership.” British Columbia’s premier, William Bennett, among others, noted Lougheed’s influence beyond Alberta’s borders. Said Bennett during a visit last week to Washington, D.C.: “I will miss Peter’s voice in a personal way at meetings of premiers and in the bilateral issues we’ve been working together on.” Like Lévesque, whom he admired, Lougheed frequently found himself battling Ottawa over constitutional and energy rights. But unlike Lévesque, Lougheed had no use for separatism. Indeed, he believed that strong provinces make a
strong country, a point Mulroney acknowledged last week, speaking to French reporters. Said Mulroney of Lougheed: “He had a particular understanding of the needs of our regions and he had a particular affinity for Quebec.”
Occasionally, Lougheed and Lévesque joined forces against Ottawa. In the most notable case they led a coalition of eight premiers in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Trudeau, who was supported only by Davis and New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield, from patriating Canada’s Constitution in 1982. But Lougheed won battles, too. As the senior Tory in Western Canada, he frustrated Davis’s personal ambition of succeeding Clark as federal leader— thereby opening the door for Mulroney.
As tributes poured in last week, Al-
berta’s Tories turned to the question of the succession. The list of leadership candidates is expected to be lengthy, even though federal Opposition Leader John Turner, who succeeded Trudeau, and Ontario Opposition Leader Frank Miller, who succeeded Davis, are living proof that taking over a governing party is not necessarily a ticket to electoral victory. Among the leading possible candidates:
•Donald Getty: The 51-year-old chairman of Nortek Energy Corp., an oil and gas firm, retired from politics in 1979 after serving in Lougheed’s government for nine years, first as intergovernmental affairs minister and later as energy minister. Supporters tout him as a “Lougheed clone” who would
faithfully continue Lougheed’s legacy. During the province’s oil revenue battles with Ottawa he was an “Alberta firster” and was one of the architects of Lougheed’s push to build an industrial base independent of Toronto’s Bay Street.
• Don Mazankowski: The 49-year-old federal transport minister, a popular native of Viking, Alta., 110 km east of Edmonton, who was one of Clark’s strongest ministers and who has emerged as a smooth performer in the Mulroney cabinet, quickly dismissed suggestions that he would seek the premier’s job. But Mazankowski, MP for Vegreville since 1968 and a former Tory caucus chairman, is expected to come under heavy pressure to enter the race. Indeed, Mulroney might not resist the idea of a
strong supporter—Mazankowski described the Prime Minister last week as “the best boss in the world”—taking over a powerful province.
• John Zaozirny: First elected in 1979, he became Lougheed’s energy minister in 1982. He quickly established a reputation as an articulate bargainer in negotiations leading to the Western Accord signed with Ottawa in March. The energy agreement effectively killed the 1980 National Energy Program, which had enraged the oil and gas industry. A telegenic Calgary lawyer of Ukranian descent, Zaozirny, 38, is regarded as a pragmatist with a strong following among Tory party workers and the ethnic community.
• Ron Ghitter: As an outspoken back-
bencher between 1971 and 1979 he openly opposed Lougheed’s decision that saw Alberta buy Pacific Western Airlines and objected when the premier decided to let the cabinet, instead of the legislature, oversee the administration of the rich Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Since leaving government to continue his highly successful law practice, Ghitter, 49, headed the controversial Committee on Tolerance and Understanding, which identified sources of racism and prejudice in Alberta schools.
Other possible contenders include David King, the 39-year-old education minister; former attorney general James Foster; and Municipal Affairs Minister Julian Koziak, 44. With a cash-heavy party war chest and all but four of the 79 seats in the legislature, the new leader will be poised to seek an early personal mandate in a general election.
When the Alberta Tory executive meets this week it will set the date for a leadership convention—probably in October. In the meantime, Alberta’s small and fractious opposition parties are preparing for the possibility of an election this year. They claim to perceive growing discontent among several blocs of voters, including indebted farmers and unemployed construction workers. Said Opposition Leader Ray Martin, whose New Democratic Party plans to run a full slate of candidates and already has 27 nominated: “We are chomping at the bit. Anyone who has travelled Alberta recently knows there is a great deal of disillusionment.”
Indeed, the Tories are entering a risky period. In a province traditionally dominated by one party for long periods of time—Social Credit ruled from 1935 to 1971, the Tories ever since—the challenge is clear: historically, the governing party must renew itself or face rapid decline. No party that lost power in Alberta this century has ever won it back. Most Alberta Tories concede that finding a successor as effective as Lougheed will be difficult. Declared Alberta Liberal leader Nick Taylor, president of Calgary’s Lochiel Explorations: “The history in Canada of strong leaders being able to pass on their winning ways to their successor is horrible. Trudeau couldn’t do it for Turner, and Davis couldn’t do it for Miller.” For their part, some Tories say they fear that a hotly contested leadership could open serious rifts. Said Ian Seph, manager of corporate affairs for Norcen Energy Resources in Calgary: “There is a strong consensus that we are going through a negative period that could be damaging to the party.” Seph said that he intends to buy and distribute about 10,000 buttons to promote continued party unity, reading: “First, I’m an Alberta PC.”
Lougheed’s political career began
modestly. In 1965, at the age of 36, he became leader of a party with one foot in the graveyard. But in the next two years he carefully reorganized the Tories, using U.S. journalist Theodore H. White’s book, The Making of the President 1960, as his political Bible. Lougheed went on door-to-door jogging campaigns and continually attacked the Socreds for failing to create an industrial base with the province’s oil revenues. In 1967 Lougheed led his party to 27 per cent of the popular vote and six seats. Four years later an admittedly surprised Lougheed defeated the Socred government of then-premier Harry Stron, winning 49 of 75 seats.
It was a stunning victory and the beginning of a new dynasty in a province undergoing rapid economic and social change. After the 1947 discovery of large oil reserves near Leduc, petroleum supplanted Alberta’s wheat-based economy, and small towns developed into cities. By 1971 less than 20 per cent of Alberta’s population lived on farms, and more than half dwelt in Calgary or Edmonton. Lougheed’s political fortune and the oil industry were inextricably linked, just as Social Credit had been tied to agriculture. Wrote political economist Larry Pratt, coauthor of Prairie Capitalism, a 1979 study of resource development in the west: “Wheat had created Social Credit. Oil tamed it, then displaced it in favor of Lougheed’s Conservatives.”
Lougheed also captured the imagination of Alberta’s new urban middle class with speeches that promised “Alberta first” and “people’s capitalism.” But it was the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and the subsequent price surge, that gave him the clout he sought on the national stage. As the price of oil in Canada rose almost tenfold to $28 from $3 a barrel, Lougheed’s message that Albertans should control their own economic growth and reap its rewards became more strident—and meaningful in Ottawa and Toronto. Recalled William Yurko, who served in Lougheed’s cabinet from 1971 to 1978 in the environment and housing portfolios: “We wanted wealth generated, accumulated and circulated in the west. It was made possible by oil.”
To move toward his objective Lougheed announced a dazzling series of policies during his first five years in office. Without consulting the oil companies, he raised the province’s share of oil revenues by 25 per cent and passed legislation guaranteeing direct ownership of one-third of Alberta’s oil production. As a result, Alberta’s oil revenues increased to $2.7 billion in 1977 from $516 million in 1973.
Armed with such windfall profits, Lougheed began to intervene directly in the province’s economic development. In 1973 his government created the Alber-
ta Energy Co., a joint government and private sector venture to invest in the multibillion-dollar Syncrude oil sands project—in which Davis’s Ontario was a $100-million, five-per-cent equity partner—and other developments. And in a controversial move that angered free enterprisers in his own caucus, Lougheed’s government bought Pacific Western Airlines in 1974 for $38 million to prevent it from falling into the hands of David Barrett’s NDP government in British Columbia. Perhaps most important of all, in 1976 Lougheed created the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which now has assets worth $14 billion,
to redirect oil profits to strengthen and diversify the economy. Although Albertans still argue about its administration, it is generally regarded as Lougheed’s greatest innovation.
Lougheed found himself on a collision course with Ottawa, which also wanted a big share of oil profits. In the early stage of the Alberta-Ottawa energy battles, which endured throughout his tenure, the eastern press dubbed Lougheed the “Sheik of Cal-gary” and Alberta cars carried bumper stickers reading “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” The debate reached its most bitter point in 1980 after the Trudeau government introduced the National Energy Program, which imposed new taxes and tighter restrictions on the oil industry. Lougheed responded by introducing a phased reduction in Alberta’s oil production—a tactic that resulted in a new pricing agreement with Ottawa. Said one of Lougheed’s close friends: “Turning off the oil in response to the NEP was the worst day in his life.”
Although Lougheed made economic diversification a constant theme early in his government, critics say that the province remains as dependent on oil as ever. The percentage of the province’s labor force involved in manufacturing declined to 8.6 per cent in 1983 from a high of 10.5 per cent in 1975. Said Liberal leader Taylor: “I think he and his administration have been economic neophytes. We are more dependent on oil than we ever have been.” In addition to a tidy desk, Lougheed leaves his successor an unfinished dream—and a challenge worthy of a new western titan.