As a western Canadian who immigrated to Alberta from British Columbia in 1978, it was hard not to be impressed with the premier of our adopted province.
Premier Peter Lougheed’s government was already well established in the late 1970s, having swept to power in 1971, overturning an exhausted Social Credit party that had ruled the roost for some 36 years. Coming from B.C., where Social Credit had also enjoyed a long run under premier ‘Wacky’ (WAC) Bennett, it was obvious that the new conservatives were progressive and promoting change on a broad front. As someone who had never voted conservative, it was an invitation to re-think political affiliation. And provincially I did.
In pretty short order, Alberta had a new Bill of Rights, a Heritage Fund, a major (and successful) fight with the Trudeau Liberals over the National Energy Policy, a successful 1988 Winter Olympics bid, provincial government involvement in regional airlines and technology development and broad investments in culture and the arts. From a B.C. perspective, it was possible to see elements of Dave Barrett’s (premier from 1972 to 1975) progressive socialist thinking alive on the prairies. It was Lougheed’s special talent to make progressive political action something most people could identify with and support.
But there was more to the Lougheed era than progressive policy. There was the interesting combination of the premier’s folksiness (especially on camera for ‘family chat sessions’ with the electorate), and his policy wonkism. Today I see elements of the Lougheed style in Bill Clinton’s recent address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. That address was just as masterfully scripted for the down home, small town audience in Arkansas, as it was for the Beltway political junkies in Washington D.C. Few politicians in my memory can speak as well to both groups as Clinton and Lougheed. In fact, right now, I cannot think of any others.
At yet another level, Lougheed stands apart from the current political actors on the Canadian stage. Simply put, he defined the political ‘common touch.’ There are thousands of stories circulating in Alberta right now on this point. They are personally held and personally told. I have one.
Family friends Harold and Donna Millican celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the Priddis Community Hall in 2001. My wife and I attended with maybe 150 other friends and family members. Peter and Jeanne Lougheed were there, as long-time pals of Harold and Donna — in fact schoolmates in the early days. After the many speeches had been given, and the meal had been served by the community-based caterers, the guests began to leave the gravel parking lot for home. One by one the cars pulled out until the Millican’s, ours and one other car remained. I wondered who it was because no one else was in the hall. I quickly peeked into the kitchen, and there was Peter Lougheed and his wife helping to dry the dishes.
Beyond an inherent progressivism, unaffected folksy charm, a sharp legal appreciation of fact, detail and nuance, and a mastery of the common touch, Lougheed’s contributions to Alberta and Canada continue long after he left political life in 1985. His recent public commentary on the importance of Albertans receiving a fair royalty for the resources that they own, and the need to consider slowing down the pace of oilsands development are cases in point. These comments, offered to the media in the post-Klein era, sharply countered a reckless desire to develop quickly a resource that promised long-term economic stability to Alberta if stewarded responsibly. His stance on royalties served to remind us all just who owned the resource in the first place. Albertans, not corporate Canada and America.
This long-term stewardship approach to public assets underpinned what is arguably the Lougheed era’s greatest policy achievement — the Alberta Heritage Fund. The Heritage Fund still stands today as a noble principle, even though its subsequent trashing for short-term cash needs has humbled its impact. Its diminished balance is an affront to those who favour sustainable long-term gains over profligate current account spending.
While Peter Lougheed’s continuing influence on Canadian affairs is today obvious, his real gift to our common future is the intelligent political expression of the long view. In the world of the ‘Stephen Harper Government,’ short-term expediency is everything. A political legacy in today’s Canada might be defined as how the polls say you are doing next week. We live in a world tied up with arguments about political means, when sustainable ends are all that really matters.
This understanding is Peter Lougheed’s enduring legacy.
Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO.