In any other province, it would have been called a landslide. But in Alberta, where political leaders can be as immovable as the Rocky Mountains, the commanding majority that Premier Donald Getty earned in last week’s provincial election constituted a dramatic setback. Just before the vote, Getty said that he would be pleased if his party won 70 of the legislature’s 83 seats. Instead, the Conservatives captured 61 seats and the premier was forced to concede, “It is clear that the people are concerned.”
That sober assessment stood in sharp contrast to the cheers that rocked the headquarters of Alberta’s New Democratic Party late Thursday night. Shocking both the country and itself, the NDP increased its seat total from two to 16. “This is just the beginning,” declared jubilant NDP Leader Ray Martin, 44. “In four years we are going to give the people of Alberta the government they deserve.” The Alberta result also buoyed NDP hopes of re-
gaining power in both the neighboring provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia, where elections are expected within months.
The NDP surge in Alberta was fuelled in part by the Conservatives’ failure to bring their potential supporters to the polls. The 50-per-cent voter turnout was the lowest ever recorded in the province. NDP strategists also capitalized by concentrating compaign efforts on Edmonton ridings where the party had established a support base. At the same time, it was clear that some Albertans have become restive after 15 uninterrupted years of Tory rule. The disenchantment was most visible in Edmonton, where Conservatives captured only six of the area’s 20 constituencies. Six cabinet ministers lost their seats. Province-wide, compared to 1982, the Conservative popular vote fell by about 220,000 to 365,000, while the NDP’S rose by some 30,000 to more than 207,000 votes.
But the election’s greatest surprise was the performance of the Liberal
party, which won four seats—its first since 1967—and raised its share of the popular vote to 12 from two per cent. Said Liberal Leader Nick Taylor, 58, elected in the northern riding of Westlock-Sturgeon after failing in four previous attempts: “The Liberal party is on its way back.”
The election seemed to signal the end of a long era in Alberta. For 50 years, first Social Credit and then the Conservatives ruled without significant challenge, backed by massive legislative majorities. The new alignment resembles a more traditional multiparty system. In addition to the NDP and Liberal gains, the rightist Representative Party retained two seats in the legislature. Observers said the political tremors reflect the profound uncertainty now haunting the province. Stung by the double danger of collapsing world prices for oil and grain, Getty’s Alberta shows little of the swagger that marked the glory days of his Tory predecessor, Peter Lougheed, starting in 1971.
Although Getty’s platform emphasized continuity with the past, his slow-moving, low-key campaign differed markedly from Lougheed’s spirited electioneering. Instead of mass rallies, Getty concentrated on smaller gatherings at community halls where he delivered a standard stump speech occasionally leavened with new promises. In addition, Getty was forced to campaign without benefit of the villain that Lougheed had invoked so effectively—a federal government against which he could vow to defend Alberta interests. Indeed, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government is more popular in Alberta than in any other province. Said University of Alberta political scientist Larry Pratt: “It was easy to attack Trudeau in the 1970s. But it’s not so easy to attack a federal government that is
overwhelmingly popular in Alberta and that just gave the province everything it wanted.”
Indeed, energy policy proved to be a constant irritant to Getty as world oil prices plummetted—to $15 (U.S.) per barrel last week from more than $30 (U.S.) last year. On the campaign trail, the premier gave energy low priority, although the oil and gas industry accounts for more than 50 per cent of the province’s gross domestic product. When Getty finally responded to the decline of oil prices by announcing a $400-million aid package, many Calgary oil companies criticized the plan as
inadequate. And less than a week before the vote, the 300-member Group of Concerned Small Explorers and Producers created a stir when it took out a half-page newspaper advertisement calling for more generous subsidies. Alluding to Getty’s former career as a quarterback for the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos, the ad read: “Don, it’s third down and 20 yards to go and the clock is running out on Alberta.”
Those complaints, emanating from a traditional bastion of Tory support, added the drama to an otherwise listless campaign. New Democratic Party Leader Martin exploited the issue, renewing his demand for a floor price for Alberta oil. He told Maclean's: “What we have is deregulation when the price is low and probable regulation again when it is high. It makes no
sense.” Meanwhile, daily reports of layoffs and impending bankruptcies overshadowed election news in Alberta newspapers. One Edmonton economist estimated that 14,000 Albertans lost their jobs in April alone, mainly because of declining oil prices. But in the face of the mounting trouble, Getty remained unruffled. The problems of the oil patch, he maintained, were merely “short term.”
In the end, the Conservatives swept southern Alberta’s rural constituencies, which rely heavily on agriculture, and limited the opposition to only three seats in Calgary. Getty’s
assiduous courting of the farm vote paid off handsomely, despite concern about impending hard times. With the aid of an uncustomary $1.9-billion budget deficit, the Conservatives assembled an aid package for agriculture—“our number 1 priority,” said Getty—that included more generous crop insurance, increased subsidies on fuel and fertilizer and a special $2-billion fund to provide fixed-rate farm loans at nine per cent over the next 20 years.
But the NDP deftly exploited the perception that the Conservative government was indifferent to growing evidence of social decay in Alberta cities. And Getty’s shift to the right may also have contributed to the resurrection of the Liberals. Once hobbled by Alberta’s intense dislike of Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals of 1986 imported federal leader John Turner and the popular Jean Chrétien in the final days of the campaign. But Liberal hopes of building on their new four-seat foundation could be complicated by leadership problems. Last year a group of rebellious party members tried to remove Taylor.
In the months ahead, Martin’s New Democrats will play the role of Alberta’s government-in-waiting. Often wearing a blue pinstriped suit, the former schoolteacher waged a relentlessly upbeat campaign designed to reassure voters who had been put off by earlier NDP negativism. And if few observers shared Martin’s optimism that conservative Alberta will one day embrace socialism, there were clear signs that the Tory dynasty was weakening. Economists predict deepening distress for the resource-based economy. Getty’s leadership abilities, seldom on display during the 28-day campaign, will also be severely tested in the newly fractious legislature. And the reduced Tory majority has resurrected the spectre of Alberta’s history of removing governments in sudden sweeps—a tradition that helped Peter Lougheed transform a six-member rump in 1967 into a 49-seat government four years later. “This is a one-party province,” said Pratt. “When the Tories go, they will go in a landslide and be replaced by another one-party dictatorship for 20 years.”
Mindful of history, Lougheed himself governed with an eye out for an attractive leader who might emerge from obscurity to engineer another sweeping upset. In the end, that challenger never appeared. But with the economy headed into a tailspin, Don Getty had good reason to keep his own political focus fixed firmly on the far horizon.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.