THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A warning shot from Peter Lougheed

We have to help those who can’t look after themselves. Degrees of assistance can be argued, but the basic philosophy of sharing must endure. ’

PETER C. NEWMAN August 21 1995
THE NATION’S BUSINESS

A warning shot from Peter Lougheed

We have to help those who can’t look after themselves. Degrees of assistance can be argued, but the basic philosophy of sharing must endure. ’

PETER C. NEWMAN August 21 1995

A warning shot from Peter Lougheed

THE NATION’S BUSINESS

PETER C. NEWMAN

Most defeated or retired provincial premiers vanish into law offices or university faculties, where they spend their days reliving past glories. Not Peter Lougheed, now age 67, who was Alberta’s premier from 1971 until he retired in 1985, and has since become a major corporate player, sitting on the boards of 18 private and public companies, as well as being on retainer for half a dozen other firms.

“I don’t really do any more legal work,” he told me last week during an interview in his Calgary law office. “I strategize for my clients and the boards I sit on, advising them on international trade and energy matters. One of the skills I brought to the marketplace from my time in politics is that I can take a briefing book and go through it 10 times faster than any other director.”

In truth, he brings much more to the marketplace, and turns down more directorships than he accepts, because he left politics untainted by scandal, secure in his national reputation as a tough negotiator and conscientious Canadian. Which is why he worries about his country these days. “My Number 1 concern,” he says, “is the distrust that exists for those in authority everywhere. I guess it always existed to some degree, but its intensity is so great these days that everyone, particularly elected political leaders have to approach every issue on the basis of the response it elicits and try to devise some long-term and medium-term vision of what’s good and what’s acceptable. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s a second element that really worries me and that’s the rising tension between individuals and their communities. I think back, for example, on Toronto’s bid for the 1996 Olympics and the aggressive opposition to it among so many groups who put individual concerns ahead of community benefits. To me, that represents a highly significant shift in values, because the Canadian character has always been based

We have to help those who can’t look after themselves. Degrees of assistance can be argued, but the basic philosophy of sharing must endure. ’

on sharing, helping your neighbor.”

The second trend that Lougheed finds disturbing is the abandonment by fellow Conservatives of Canadians at the lower end of the economic scale. He believes too many members of his own party—and he significantly doesn’t exempt Ralph Klein—use the excuse of fiscal restraints and expenditure cuts to slough off responsibility for people’s welfare. “As a Conservative,” he says, “my feeling is that we have to help those who can’t look after themselves. That must be basic Conservative policy. Now, I’m not in public life any more, and degrees of assistance can obviously be argued, but the basic philosophy of sharing must endure.” When I asked him, specifically, whether he thought, on that basis, Klein still qualified as a Tory, Lougheed suggested that the premier was getting close to the line. (“I’m not saying he’s sloughing off responsibility for people’s welfare, but he’s getting to the edge of doing it—and that’s my concern.”) The former premier also pointed out that the recent cuts to welfare payments by Mike Harris’s new Ontario administration still left them among the highest in Canada. ‘We’re still a long way from not looking after people,” Lougheed in-

sists, “but it has to be watched, because of that other element, which is the decline of collectivity in this country. We seem to be becoming increasingly Americanized, which imposes a rugged and un-Canadian individualism on our ethic.”

Lougheed’s fear of U.S. domination is partly based on his love of Canadian football (he played for the Edmonton Eskimos in 1949 and 1950 as a punt returner) and his conviction that the CFL’s expansion philosophy has wrecked the Canadian game. “To have Baltimore play in the Grey Cup—I just find that hard to work with,” he grumps.

Although he has in the past complained about the CBC’s news coverage and successfully sued the corporation for its portrayal of him, Lougheed despairs of the television network’s loss of direction, and advocates its return to meaningful and relevant programming. “I fought for the exemption of culture in the Free Trade Agreement with the Americans,” he says, “because they view culture as a commodity they successfully export and don’t comprehend that it’s the basis of our existence. I also don’t buy the currently popular notion that we’re all part of a global village. Maybe most countries qualify, but not Canada. We’re too close to the Americans not to stick up for our own rights, especially in the cultural field.”

In the face of the coming Quebec referendum, Lougheed remains optimistic because he doesn’t see the same spiritual drive for independence among the province’s young people that there was in previous showdowns, and believes Quebec voters will deal with Jacques Parizeau’s question—no matter how trickily worded—with more caution and logic than even in 1980, when the separatists lost by a wide margin. He supports Jean Chrétien on his low-key tactics, convinced that timing is everything. Lougheed points out that in the 1980 referendum, Pierre Trudeau didn’t get into the fight until the last minute, and even though he didn’t follow through on his promises of a new constitutional settlement with Quebec, his intervention was timed precisely right.

He is a lot less pleased with Trudeau when it comes to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “I opposed the charter as premier in 1981, and I still do, because I felt that the supremacy of the legislature must be preserved. I remember the slogan on the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67, which proclaimed, ‘Our rights are the rewards of responsibility,’ and I still believe in that. That’s my philosophy. The charter deprives Canadians of responsibility by emphasizing individual rights per se. I blame the Trudeau charter for a lot that’s gone wrong with this country.” It was Lougheed who led the fight to weaken the charter by including the notwithstanding clause that allows provincial legislatures to overrule the courts, as Quebec’s Robert Bourassa did in 1988 to put through his French-only outside signs legislation.

Clearly, while Peter Lougheed may be out of office, he’s not out of touch.