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A Party Disappears 1935-1965

In the 1935 Conservative leader D.W. Duggan of Edmonton was one of two Conservative candidates who managed to get elected. He said that he would never support Social Credit theories. “We believe our stand on the Social Credit theory will be vindicated in no uncertain way.”

And, in fact, Social Credit had a number of early disasters. It was badly split internally, with bitter debates over monetary reform. It attempted to gag the press. Its promises to pay $25 dividends to every Albertan could not be kept. It refused to honour Alberta’s debts. Yet to many Albertans, Social Credit, with its anti-establishment, anti-bank, and anti-east attitudes, represented their fight to “keep the sheriff out”, with the terrible hardships being faced by so many people.

The Social Credit monetary theories did seem bizarre to leading Conservatives. For one Liberal newspaper, The Edmonton Bulletin, the election results were “too appalling, too serious, and too colossal”.

In the late thirties, the Conservative and Liberal parties decided to close ranks and fight the Social Credit party together. In 1940, there were no Conservative candidates.

The Early Days

That 1940 election represented a prime opportunity for anti-Social Credit forces, because of the controversies surrounding Aberhart and his policies. Liberals and Conservatives ran under the label “Independent” and obtained 42% of the popular vote, the same as Social Credit. But because of the distribution of constituencies Social Credit kept 36 seats in the House and the Independents had 19 seats.

Again in 1944 and 1948, there were no Conservative candidates. In these elections, however, the “Independent” movement also faded. There were several reasons. One was the new-found prosperity of Alberta. The other was the emergence of Ernest Manning as Aberhart’s successor. Manning was much less inclined to peronal feuds within his party and much less inclined to histrionics outside the party.

In the early fifties, it was apparent that the Conservative-Liberal coalition was not working and the Conservative Party began to re-emerge. The Liberals were stronger and the Conservatives were only able to nominate five candidates in the 1952 election.

The Conservative platform supported the sale of coloured margarine (one of those Alberta issues which lingered on for decades) and greater emphasis on the “fundamentals” in education. The prime proposal by the Conservatives was that the export of natural gas should occur “only after adequate supplies are established for Alberta use”.

In 1952 Percy Page was the only Conservative elected. Page who was party leader, was popular even if his party was not. A school principal, he was famous for founding and coaching the Edmonton Grads basketball team, probably the most successful team ever to come out of Alberta.

If in 1952 Albertans wanted to “carry on with Social Credit”, in 1955, however, Albertans were less certain about Social Credit. Serious scandals had rocked the Manning administration.

The Conservatives talked about equality of opportunity and integrity in government.

However, as Percy Page himself said afterward, the Party was badly prepared for the surprise early election called by Manning. Most people voting against Social Credit voted Liberal and the election results were: Social Credit-37; Liberal-15; Conservative-3; CCF-2; and others-4.

In 1959 the newly named Alberta Progressive Conservatives were much more optimistic. Nationally, the PCs under John Diefenbaker had swept the country. The Conservative slogan was “A Strong Team for a Greater Alberta”. PC policies included capital aid for farmers and increased supplementary allowances for senior citizens. Party leader Cam Kirby of Red Deer emphasized that “ours is a party of youth, vitality and vigour”.

But voters were more inclined to stay with “Mr. Manning”. The Edmonton Journal headlined “Opposition Dumped”, as the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals each got one seat. The PC elected was Ernest Watkins of Calgary.

Watkins became interim party leader. In a precedent-setting move, he introduced, as an Opposition MLA, an Alberta Bill of Rights. Watkins reflected the traditional Conservative concern for the rights of people in a society.

The Honourable John Diefenbaker, Alberta PC Leader Milt Harradance and Calgary Mayor Jack Leslie (1953). Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives

But Watkins was not a combative politician and he created a furore in the Party when he made statments which some interpreted as supportive of the Manning administration.

When a leadership convention was called for in 1962, Watkins announced he would not run. Then, at last minute, he decided to run. But with no organization he had no chance and he was eliminated on the first ballot.

If Ernest Watkins was a low-key figure, the man who became the next Progressive Conservative leader was one of the most flamboyant figures ever to appear on the political scene in Alberta.

He was Milt Harradence, a criminal lawyer from Calgary who campaigned by flying all over Alberta in his own plane. As the party literature said, Harradence’s big issue was whether Alberta “continues with one-man government or returns to democracy”. He proposed a comprehensive crop-insurance plan and pressed for Legislature Hansard.

Social Credit, under Manning, made a dramatic move during the election by announcing a full medical insurance program scheme, to be run by a doctors’ insurance group. Herradence himself said after the election that the election results were attributable to “Manning’s genius”.

Whatever the reasons, the Progressive Conservatives did disatrously. They elected no MLAs. Their popular vote dropped in half, down to 12.5%.