By Brian Brennan
Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives are celebrating 40 uninterrupted years in power. A Globe and Mail reporter talks to some unnamed “Tory stalwarts, opposition leaders and observers.” He concludes that the PC dynasty was “forged in the fire of Alberta’s hatred for Pierre Trudeau and his national energy policy.”
Sorry, Globe and Mail, but you really should bone up on your Alberta history.
The ascendancy of Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives had nothing to do with hatred of Trudeau or his short-lived, unilaterally imposed energy pricing deal. Trudeau’s controversial National Energy Program was not implemented until October 1980. Alberta’s PCs came to power nine years earlier, at the end of August, 1971. They won that election, plainly and simply, because of an overwhelming desire on the part of Alberta voters to see some new faces at the helm.
The provincial Social Credit party had been in power for 36 years. Its leader for 25 of those years, Ernest Manning (father of Reform Party co-founder Preston), had retired from politics. His anointed successor, Harry Strom, was perceived by the electorate as a fundamentally decent but boring guy who couldn’t hold a candle to radio evangelist Manning as a public speaker. Strom came across on television as wooden and grumpy and out-of-touch — like everyone’s crabby old grandfather.
Aside from the charismatically challenged Strom, the Socred party itself had a serious image problem. Born in the midst of the Depression as a rural-based grass-roots movement that promised to solve Alberta’s economic problems, the party had become — in the eyes of the province’s younger voters, especially — little more than a bunch of old farmers with two feet stuck in the past.
Strom emerged as the pan-piper of Alberta politics at a time when people wanted to hear trumpets. Lougheed had the right combination of brass and wind. A Harvard-trained lawyer who once played halfback for the Edmonton Eskimos, the 43-year old Lougheed managed to convince voters that the Socreds were old, tired, and inflexible while the PCs were young, progressive, and responsive to the needs of the citizens. Ideologically, there was little to choose between the two right-wing parties. As former premier Manning said afterwards, it was as if voters who had always driven Chevrolets had suddenly decided to switch to Buicks. “They were still driving GM vehicles.”
Offering the voters new faces and a new style was the first step for Lougheed and his young cabinet. What he described as “province building” was the next. The place Lougheed called the “greatest darned province in the world” could be headed for a bleak future of unemployment and social unrest, he warned, if it didn’t find ways to diversify its economy through development of new industries. He hoped to fund such development through maximizing the province’s return from its declining, non-renewable oil and gas resources.
Ottawa didn’t enter the picture until late 1973, when the minority Trudeau government — in a bid to appease eastern consumers — imposed limitations on Alberta’s ability to raise domestic oil prices and derive as much revenue as possible from increased royalties. Albertans responded by slapping bumper stickers on their cars that read “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” Tense intergovernmental negotiations over pricing and revenue sharing continued during the next six years, until Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives formed a minority government in 1979. At that point it became clear that the conflict between Ottawa and Alberta had nothing to do with the lack of Liberal representation from Alberta in Parliament, or tensions between Lougheed and Trudeau. Lougheed’s plan to maximize Alberta’s resource wealth and make the province something more than a “junior partner” in Canada was no more palatable to Clark than it had been to Trudeau. Low-cost energy, said Clark, was essential to give central Canadian industry a competitive advantage.
Trudeau’s National Energy Program remains a potent symbol of western discontent. But its most controversial elements were either modified or replaced within a year, and the achievement of a new federal-provincial energy deal, in September 1981, ended with a celebratory toast between Lougheed and Trudeau, a photograph of which appeared in newspapers across Canada.
There are many reasons why the Progressive Conservatives have remained in power in Alberta for 40 years. But hatred of Trudeau is not one of them.
Calgary writer Brian Brennan is the author of The Good Steward: The Ernest C. Manning Story. His latest book is a memoir, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada.