CANADA

Alberta’s part-time premier

JOHN HOWSE March 9 1987
CANADA

Alberta’s part-time premier

JOHN HOWSE March 9 1987

Alberta’s part-time premier

In a downtown Calgary office tower last week about a dozen men and women were poring over details of the Alberta Conservative party’s upcoming convention. But for the first time in many years, the annual exercise was marked by a major difference: senior Tories were telling party workers to downplay the role of their leader, Premier Donald Getty. When 1,800 delegates gather in Calgary’s convention centre April 3 to 5, there will be no oversized portraits of the leader, as there were during the 14-year reign of Getty’s predecessor, Peter Lougheed. Instead of paying homage to the party leader, Alberta’s Tories will be closeted in policy workshops. Said one organizer: “Getty won’t be the focal point of any themes.”

The shift in emphasis reflects growing doubts in Alberta over Getty’s ability to lead his province through tough economic times. For the 53-year-old premier, running Alberta has been a far more difficult task than that faced by the Lougheed administration during the

resource boom of the 1970s and early 1980s. Low oil and natural-gas prices have cut provincial revenues by half. A $3-billion-plus deficit looms in the approaching spring budget. And cuts in funds for social programs are proving unpopular in a province long used to lavish spending on health, education and welfare.

Alberta’s economic problems have contributed to criticism of Getty’s leadership. But the premier’s detractors have also made unflattering comparisons between him and Lougheed, who stepped down in October, 1985. Lougheed was known as a puritanical workaholic; Getty, in contrast, follows a more leisurely working schedule and makes time for regular golfing holidays with his family in Palm Springs, Calif. That relaxed style has left him open to criticism that he has not given adequate leadership to a province beset by economic troubles. A vice-president of a petroleum company, who met Getty in December, said later: “His problem is that he’s lazy. He doesn’t do his homework.”

Echoed another critic, Calgary oil executive Gerald Sykes: “He’s a nice guy but he’s a do-nothing.” And a senior Alberta civil servant who attended a meeting in Getty’s Edmonton office with another top civil servant from Calgary recalled: “With Lougheed, the agenda was followed religiously. You made your point and got out. Getty ignored the agenda. We had a rambling discussion, and the Calgarian never did get to make his presentation.”

Getty’s defenders argue that Albertans should not expect him to be a replica of Lougheed. “We have to stop wanting Getty to wear Lougheed’s shoes,” said one veteran Tory organizer. “His priorities are different.” In fact, Getty has always made a point throughout his 14-year political career of making time for his family—his wife of 31 years, Margaret, and their four sons. As he told Maclean’s, “My wife and I believe that if you don’t raise your family right, almost anything [else] you do doesn’t matter.”

Still, Getty’s style has become an issue. Falling energy revenues have prompted the government to announce a $300-million cut in spending. More than 300 of Alberta’s 35,000 civil servants have been laid off—and 2,000 more have been offered early retirement. The cutbacks have provoked some unusual activities. Last month 5,000 University of Calgary students blocked Crowchild Trail, one of the city’s busiest expressways, to protest a threatened 10-percent increase in university tuition fees, now the second-lowest in Canada. And the following week workers at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital offered to return a $500 annual pay increase to save the jobs of colleagues facing layoffs.

There are few signs that Getty’s leadership—or the Tories’ grip on Albertaare in serious jeopardy. A poll that the Calgary-based National West Strategy Group Inc. conducted in January found that 41 per cent of those questioned support the Tories, compared with 18 per cent for the NDP and just eight per cent for the Liberals. That would be enough to give the Conservatives another resounding victory.

But the opposition parties sense a change in the political winds. The provincial NDP won 16 seats in last May’s election, a record high. And even Alberta’s tiny Liberal party is showing signs of renewed vigor, with Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore and Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein both considering bids for the party leadership. Preparing for next month’s convention, a high-ranking Conservative acknowledged, “The era of being a Tory and just licking stamps and sealing envelopes is over.”

-JOHN HOWSE in Calgary