The Conservative campaign commercial shown on Alberta television opens with black-andwhite film of an old football game. It is the 1956 Grey Cup in which the Edmonton Eskimos beat the Montreal Alouettes. The leader of the championship Edmonton squad: a rangy 23-year-old quarterback named Don Getty. Cut to 1986, a still lean and athletic Getty, now 52 and premier of Alberta, is tossing a football back and forth with his two grown-up sons. As Alberta’s May 8 provincial election approaches, the message to voters from the governing Conservatives was clear: only a man with Getty’s proven leadership ability can guide the province through its current economic hard times. But Alberta’s small opposition parties ridiculed that assertion. “You were a great football player,” conceded New Democratic Party Leader Ray Martin to NDP campaign workers. “And Don, it’s nice that we remember the 1950s. But Don, my friend, this is the 1980s.” A lapel pin worn by some New Democrats made the point more bluntly: “Sack the Quarterback.” Despite the opposition jibes, Getty is widely expected to win his first election as Conservative leader since taking over from Peter Lougheed last November, maintaining the party’s
commanding majority in the provincial legislature. The Tories hold 75 of the existing 79 seats, while the NDP and the right-wing Representative Party hold two each. A Conservative poll taken in the first week of the fourweek campaign indicated that while 50 per cent of respondents said they were undecided, between 60 and 70 per cent said they would support the Tories.
But a weakening economy in Alberta has introduced an element of uncertainty into the electoral equation. Political observers note that this is the first hard-times election in oilenriched Alberta since 1971, when Lougheed engineered the defeat of a 36-year Social Credit dynasty. The allimportant oil industry, hit hard by the sharp drop in international oil prices to $11 (U.S.) last week from $29 at the end of last year, has already suffered about 3,000 layoffs this year. As a result, the Tories have stopped criticizing the federal government—now run by fellow Conservatives—and concentrated on the local economic crisis. Ottawa-bashing, said University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins, “has been a characteristic of provincial politics for so long that its absence is striking.”
Getty has also promised government aid for industry. Recent pledges: a $400-
million program to aid the oil sector, agricultural aid worth $576 million and $2.8 billion for capital works projects that Getty promised would create up to 10,000 jobs. Another Getty campaign promise—10-year government loans to small businesses at a nine-percent annual interest rate —pleased even avowed free enterprisers. Said Red Deer package courier James McMath, 43: “It’s something this province needs. I have always been a Conservative— deep in my heart I’m a free enterpriser.”
In the long term, Getty said, he wants to diversify the economy to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle associated with resource § development. Responded S Liberal Leader Nick TayI lor: “If they couldn’t do it in good times, how will they do it in bad?” A few days after Getty’s promise of government loans to business, the New Democrats restated its more generous policy—financing at six per cent over 20 years. The NDP has also proposed placing a minimum provincial tax on income over $50,000 and building a $927-million high-speed rail link between Edmonton and Calgary. For his part, Representative Party Leader Ray Speaker—a former Social Credit MLAhas called for more government aid for embattled farmers.
Both opposition parties recognize that their chances of forming a government are, at best, slim. “Albertans do not see an acceptable substitute for the Conservatives,” admits Calgary Liberal candidate Sheldon Chumir. But they insist that the voters want a stronger legislative opposition to keep a watch on the Conservatives. With candidates in all 83 ridings, the NDP hopes to pick up one seat in Calgary and up to 10 in northern Alberta.
Political experts say the outcome of the election depends to a large part on personalities. Martin, 44, must live up to the memory of his popular predecessor, Grant Notley, who was killed in a 1984 airplane crash. For his part, Getty has established an image as “an honest, sincere guy trying to do a good job,” says University of Lethbridge political scientist David Elton. But he must still prove to some voters that he can match Lougheed’s skill as Alberta’s government quarterback.
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.