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Alberta 'lucky' to have Lougheed

By Bill Kaufmann, Calgary Sun

CALGARY - 

When Allan Warrack first sat down with Peter Lougheed to be wooed into running for office, it was clear the premier-to-be was serious about change.

It was an inkling, if not an assurance, that his boss would go on to be seen as the patriarch of modern Alberta.

"He was impressive, a young, vigorous guy obviously open to ideas," Warrack said of that first meeting at Edmonton's Hotel Lacombe.

"He wasn't so much running against the Social Credit government, but running for a new vision."

Months after that fortuitous meeting, Lougheed's cadre of 49 Tory MLAs were swept into power in late August 1971, ending a 35-year Socred dynasty.

The accomplishments and vision of Lougheed's 14-year rule would, ironically, be put into perspective by the long-serving Socred premier who preceded him, Warrack said.

"The longer I was in government, the more I came to appreciate him, because the only comparison would be to Ernest Manning with all his honesty and integrity," he said.

"How lucky was Alberta?"

While Lougheed had humble political beginnings when he first decided to challenge Alberta's ingrained status quo, so, too, was his childhood.

Alberta's future 10th premier was the grandson of Sir James Lougheed, a senator and federal cabinet minister whose name graces the 3,107-metre peak visible from his hometown of Calgary.

But Sir James' fortune was decimated in the Great Depression and after Peter was born in Calgary on July 26, 1928, his family lived an uprooted life of shifting addresses.

Evidence of his coming leadership role came in Lougheed's forming the first students' union at his Calgary high school,

He also developed a taste for football while attending the University of Alberta, where he earned bachelors of arts and law.

Lougheed played for the U of A Golden Bears, going on to pound the gridiron for the Edmonton Eskimos in 1949-50.

But it was more towards academics that the young Lougheed would turn, seeking a masters of business administration at Harvard.

It's believed that, while toiling in an oil industry summer job in Oklahoma, he witnessed the fate of a town whose petroleum fortunes had run dry.

Some say it's possible that experience influenced Lougheed's determination to leave Alberta a legacy fund for his home province's post-petroleum days.

By the early 1960s, he began leaning towards the one field that could consummate that vision -- politics.

But he entered the fray at a time when being a Tory in Alberta was a hand-to-mouth existence.

"The party used to meet in a phone booth, then they graduated to church basements," Warrack said.

"It was a little cadre of Calgary supporters who were simple, straight-to-the-point but it was tough slogging, literally from being on the ground.

"He built the party, not the other way around."

In the early 1960s, the PC party held no seats and had captured only 13% of the vote.

But a tireless Lougheed was to become a pesky David to the Socred Goliath, issuing a sterner challenge in the 1967 provincial election that chisel a crack into the political dynasty's armour.

The party finished in second place, with Lougheed elected in the riding of Calgary West, easily outdistancing his rivals with 62% of the vote.

He was joined by five other Tories, almost all elected in Alberta's two largest cities.

Manning was soon replaced by the staid Harry Strom and Lougheed smelled a prime opportunity to topple what he -- and more than a few other Albertans -- considered a stagnant, overly-rural government.

Calgary lawyer Ron Ghitter remembers the recruiting effort that ensued, featuring an opposition leader appealing to the better nature's of prospective candidates.

"We weren't really thinking of running politically but he'd tell us, 'Alberta's been good to you, you owe it back to Albertans'," he recalls.

Ghitter went on to become part of the balloting avalanche that re-drew Alberta's political map in August, 1971.

He was elected in Calgary Buffalo, one of 49 PC candidates swept to power.

"It really was something unprecedented -- we thought we were one election away from it, but Alberta turned on a dime," Ghitter told QMI Agency in 2008.

Lougheed, whose party captured 55.2% of the vote, wasted little time in re-creating Alberta in what his admirers say was a more modern, progressive image.

It wasn't only the petroleum-dominated fiscal regime that was a target, a host of other areas were to be transformed, noted Warrack, who says he was elected in Three Hills as a "token southern rural Albertan" for his party.

"People have an understated vision of the contribution of the Lougheed government at the time," he said.

"The Heritage Trust Fund was Number 11 on the platform ... there was a lot of commitment beyond the economic things."

The freshly-minted PC government moved to update the lower court system, making it more fair for less affluent defendants.

A new Mental Health Act was crafted as were a raft of civil liberties protections, including a human rights commission.

"We had no bill of rights, no individual rights act -- he really did bring Alberta around from that rural, Bible Bill Aberhart position," Ghitter said.

"He really did bring Alberta into the 20th and 21st centuries -- I don't think there was a piece of significant legislation we didn't change."

A year after taking office, Lougheed set his sights on the taxpayers' share of Alberta's energy revenues, picking a fight with the industry many insiders now consider unthinkable today.

Public hearings were held, where industry officials railed at the notion of granting owners of the resource -- Albertans -- higher energy royalties.

"I think of all the flak and abuse from all of the corporate suits -- they were as totally wrong as they could possibly be," says Warrack, adding Albertans soon received far more of the corporate profits than they'd been accustomed.

"We essentially doubled it from 17% -- when you achieve economic justice for the owners, they you have the capacity to do other things that cry out like the medical and mental health fields," said Warrack.

Those tumultuous energy royalty hearings, recalls Ghitter, were also something that's since become alien to Albertans.

"I don't think there's been a public hearing since ... the oil industry continues to do very well," he says.

He, too, recalls the industry push-back.

"They called him sheikh and red Tory, the last one I'd wear proudly as a badge," says Ghitter.

In 1975, Lougheed's Tories consolidated their gains by capturing a whopping 78.8% of the vote -- essentially setting the stage for routine PC landslides over the coming decades.

Warrack first won his seat in 1971 by eight votes, earning himself the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "Landslide."

Four years later, he didn't lose a single poll in his riding.

The 1975 election supplied the Lougheed government with a mandate for more sweeping change.

His government played an activist role in the economy, setting up the Alberta Energy Corporation and purchasing Pacific Western Airlines.

Critics slammed Lougheed and his ministers for what they called costly socialist interventionism but Warrack said it seemed an obvious route to tread, giving Albertans a piece of the action.

The airline purchase, he recalled, also had a more immediately competitive rationale.

"We bought it so (B.C. premier) Dave Barrett couldn't," he says.

Lougheed might have been a small-c conservative, pro-business premier, but he was hardly a shackled ideologue, says Ghitter.

"He was an entrepreneurial type but he didn't get carried away with it ... when he thought we should move on Pacific Western Airlines, he did," Ghitter said.

Through it all, Lougheed proved a tireless political chieftain, inspiring his caucus and civil servants to do the same, adds Ghitter.

"He did it by working harder than anyone else," he says, adding even in ailing health in recent years, Lougheed "still worked the room, he was the consummate politician."

He also knew the minutiae of policy and files "as well as his ministers," adds Ghitter.

At the same time, Lougheed had a knack for surrounding himself with top people, say both Warrack and Ghitter, and assembled a 1970s-early 80s cabinet with stellar members.

"I don't think there's ever been the individuals since then that had the strength, the intelligence and education," says Ghitter.

He was also a premier who was master at nurturing and manoeuvring major policy initiatives, one of which was the creation of the Heritage Savings and Trust Fund in 1976.

Ghitter still marvels at the gradual massaging of the idea, the trial balloons and the positioning until the legislation was ripe for the implementation.

"He was brilliant in how he staged new ideas, so he didn't get too far ahead," said Ghitter.

The fund became an Alberta rainy day touchstone, one whose revenues would also be used to help other provinces.

Its creation coincided with a heady, petroleum-driven economic boom that swelled the province population and pitched the skylines of Edmonton and Calgary heavenward.

It was because of those riches that Lougheed would become embroiled in what became known as the energy wars with Ottawa.

The federal government under Pierre Trudeau wanted the nation to benefit more directly from Alberta's natural wealth and sought changes to how those were shared and a cap on oil prices.

Lougheed became a symbol of provincial rights by standing up to those advances in what became a long, drawn-out constitutional tug-of-war.

The premier cut oil supplies to the rest of the country by 15% and threatened to withhold permits for oilsands projects.

Legal action was launched.

"Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark" became Alberta bumper sticker rhetoric.

"He stood up for us constitutionally -- Trudeau was no friend but neither was (Ontario premier) Bill Davis," says Ghitter.

"Ontario thought it could still call the shots and Peter had to change that psychology."

When an agreement was reached between Alberta and Ottawa, it was accompanied by a now-infamous photo of Lougheed clinking champagne glasses with a broadly grinning federal energy minister Marc Lalonde.

Much of the energy industry wasn't pleased with the pact and Lougheed was less than bubbly with that lingering image.

"The picture was an embarrassment for him -- he resented that, and then the NEP hit and it was devastating," says Ghitter.

While some accuse Lougheed of selling out with the compromise price pact with Ottawa, Warrack insists he did as well as he could.

"Think of the subsequent premiers and if they'd have been there instead of Lougheed, that should convince you," he says.

The National Energy Policy, along with plunging oil prices and a global recession, played havoc with Alberta's oilpatch, The bid to Canadianize the energy sector saw a flight of capital and bankruptcies in both the corporate and individual spheres.

Resentment in Alberta rose to such heights that a 1981 opinion poll showed 49% of residents were in favour of seceding from Canada.

While the oilpatch was hurt by other global factors, a federal Conservative government under Brian Mulroney would repeal the NEP in 1985.

It was the year Lougheed stepped down, three years after winning his largest majority ever, corralling 78.8% of the ballots.

It was an election that featured a separatist candidate winning a seat.

In 1985, the province's reins were handed over to Don Getty, one of Lougheed's original six from 1967.

Some of Lougheed's critics argue he left Getty holding a difficult fiscal bag, with spending soaring while the economy struggled.

"We really built a large infrastructure, a lot of programs with operating costs," said Ghitter, who ran unsuccessfully for the leadership won by Getty.

"There were a lot of costs Don had to deal with and to be fair to Don, he tried.

"When Peter left, he left on a high but the growing operating costs were put in place."

In 1986, another recession would render Getty's task even harder.

For his part, Getty blames most of his troubles on slackening world oil prices and accords his old friend only the highest praise.

"He fought for the people of Alberta and we were shoulder to shoulder for most of the fight," said Getty.

"He's one of the greatest Canadians I've ever known."

After leaving office, Lougheed went back to his lawyerly roots in Calgary, practising for Bennett Jones.

In 1986, he was named a Companion to the Order of Canada while the two largest landmarks to his name remain a northeast hospital in Calgary and a provincial park in Kananaskis Country.

He remained an elder statesman and icon, expressing concern over what he considered the overly-hasty development of the oilsands.

In last spring's hard-fought election, he supplied a much-treasured endorsement of Premier Alison Redford's candidacy.

But Warrack and other architects of the Heritage Trust Fund say his memory has been besmirched by the province's shrinking take of energy revenues and the anaemic size of the fund that stands at about $15 billion after 36 years.

Norway, by comparison, has collected near half a trillion dollars in far less time.

"We're a banana republic," says Warrack of the province's take of energy dollars that's plummeted since Lougheed's reign.

"It cries out for justice."

Despite that, Ghitter says Lougheed's contributions remain as will his reputation as an indispensable Albertan and Canadian.

"His impact on our province and Canada is immense and his stamp will be here forever as a very positive stamp," said Ghitter, who notes at the height of his popularity, Lougheed was wooed to run for prime minister by his federal Tory cousins.

"It's our blessing he stayed in Alberta."

bill.kaufmann@sunmedia.ca

twitter@SUNBillKaufmann

 


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