The Tide Turns 1965-1985
In March of 1965, the Progressive Conservatives met in Edmonton to select a new leader. With no seats and a meagre 12.5% of the popular vote in 1963, there was little room for optimism.
The convention was attended by 330 delegates who chose Peter Lougheed of Calgary as leader over Duncan McKillop, also of Calgary. Peter Lougheed was a “true product of Alberta”; his grandfather, Sir James Lougheed, had been a major figure in the Alberta Conservative Party from the turn of the century.
The Calgary Albertan commenting on Peter Lougheed said that “whether he is to be congratulated on his election… is, in light of the party’s past history and future prospects, a debatable point”.
Early events added to the pessimism. On March 29, 1965, the PCs placed a dismal fourth in a by-election in Edson. In 1966, the Party’s fortunes looked even worse after a by-election in Pincher Creek, where the NDP took the seat and Conservatives fell from second to third place.
Still, Peter Lougheed was beginning to build his quiet revolution. He was doing well in his public appearances and, even more important, he was attracting credible candidates- enough, he hoped to make the Conservatives the Official Opposition in the next provincial election.
That election was called for May 23, 1967. The biggest event was a forum of the party leaders held in McDougall Church in Edmonton. The young Lougheed held up well against the stature of Ernest Manning.
But even more important was the tough slogging in the constituencies. On election night, there were many close ridings, including Calgary-South where Joe Clark, Canada’s future Prime Minister, was defeated. Six Conservatives were elected, including Peter Lougheed with a huge victory in Calgary-West and five others- Dr. Hugh Horner from Barrhead, Don Getty and Lou Hyndman from edmonton, and Len Werry and Dave Russell from Calgary.
The original nucleus proved to be a potent team, and a new spirit entered Alberta politics. The PCs proposed many alternatives to Social Credit. The basic approaches were positive, although the Social Credit “myth of performance” was consistently questioned.
In 1968 Ernest Manning annouced his decision to step down as Premier. Following a leadership convention, Harry Strom became the new leader of the Social Credit Party.
In 1969 there were some stunning events. Bill Yurko jolted Social Credit by taking Ernest Manning’s former seat in Edmonton. Then Bob Dowling won a by-election in Edson, a seat formerly held by the Liberals. In November, 1969, Bill Dickie changed his status as the lone Liberal in the Legislature and joined the Progressive Conservative caucus.
During the spring session in 1970 the Conservatives introduced 21 bills. It was a unique move for an opposition in Canada and reinforced the public’s perception of an alternative government. Momentum continued when Clarence Copithorne, the Independent from Banff-Chochrane, joined the Progressive Conservatives in June. This brought the caucus to ten members.
But while the Conservatives under Lougheed were gaining momentum, Social Credit was not standing still. It made a determined effort to regenerate itself, with new faces and a more contemporary appearance. Things were shaping up for an epic political battle.
Harry Strom called the election for August 30, 1971.
The Progressive Conservatives had a theme captured the spirit and aspirations of large numbers of Albertans: NOW! Now was the time for Alberta to be recognized as an important contributing member of Confederation. Now was the time for Peter Lougheed and his Party to lead Alberta.
On that August day, Albertans elected their first Conservative government. Peter Lougheed became Premier. The Conservatives had 49 seats; Social Credit, 25; and the NDP, 1.
The first piece of legislation introduced by the new Progressive Conservative government in 1972 was an Alberta Bill of Rights.
Premier Lougheed’s cabinet was built around the nucleus from the original caucus, including Dr. Hugh Horner, who became Deputy Premier, and future Premier, Don Getty, who became Minister of Federal and Intergovernmental Affairs.
In 1973, the federal government slapped a tax on oil exports, beginning what was to be a decade of bitter relations between Ottawa and Alberta. The federal Liberals actually agreed to remove the tax but then reversed their position. Don Getty, who was negotiating for Alberta, called off the negotiations until they could be “carried on in a spirit of trust”. As a negotiator, one federal minister described Getty this way: “… there is always a lot of steel there. He is quite exceptional in that regard”. Another Liberal cabinet minister later recalled that Don Getty was “a man you can trust if you are involved in negotiations.”
Meanwhile, Peter Lougheed was becoming a leader of national stature, and the champion of Alberta and western Canadian interests.
Alberta began to prosper in an unprecedented way as petroleum prices boomed on world markets.
In the 1975 election, the Progressive Conservatives won 69 seats with 62.5% of the popular vote, the highest percentage ever obtained by a political party. Social Credit kept only four seats (party leader Werner Schmidt was defeated); the NDP, one; and the Liberals had no seats. There was on Independent.
During the 1975 campaign, Peter Lougheed proposed the formation of a Heritage Fund- to set aside the revenues from the petroleum boom for the future when prices might not stay so high. It was a classic Conservative move, representing the Party’s traditional support for fiscal responsibility and concern for future generations.
At the same time, the PC administration implemented many initiatives to improve the quality of life for Albertans, such as housing programs for senior citizens, new community facilities for the handicapped and a broad range of health-care facilities.
The late seventies was a difficult time to govern a province but not for the usual reasons. The optimism was so great that it needed restraining, to prevent Alberta from having a terribly overheated economy.
Approaching the 1979 election, the largest Conservative problem was apathy. Local constituency organizations remained the key as the PCs had another over-whelming mandate- 74 out of 79 seats, and only a slight drop in the popular vote. Social Credit remained the main opposition with four MLAs and the NDP kept one seat. The Liberals were again unable to elect any members.
If Albertans were apathetic about politics in 1979, they were not in 1980. The Liberals, under Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa, introduced the National Energy Program, a program which was to devastate portions of the Alberta economy. It singled out the resources of western Canada for totally different treatment from those of the other regions. It was to siphon $60 billion from the Alberta economy over the next few years. It aroused bitter reactions in the west which even now have not disappeared.
One prominent Liberal from western Canada wrote a comparison between Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed. Lougheed, he wrote, “never made an economic move without first giving it the most careful analysis. In contrast, Pierre Trudeau was at his hip-shooting worst when it came to economic decisions. He appeared to consider them relatively unimportant and largely ignored their private cost.”
Those words were all too true for western Canada, with the National Energy Program and other policies. And even though the National Energy Program was a Liberal initiative, it was strongly supported by the NDPs, who seemed willing to abandon their western roots. The national Progressive Conservatives, under leader Joe Clark, opposed the Program.
In 1981, Alberta reluctantly reached an agreement with the federal government relating to energy matters but another issue emerged- the Constitution proposed by Pierre Trudeau and the federal Liberals. Alberta’s position was that the amending formula in the proposed constitution would have made Alberta a “second-class province” in comparison to Ontario and Quebec. Lougheed was the clear leader in the successful fight for western Canadian interests during the Constitutional battles.
Even so, and despite the high level of support for the Progressive Conservatives, there was an unprecedented degree of frustration in Alberta. In a 1982 by-election, there was actually a separatist candidate elected to the Legislature.
In March of 1982, at the Progressive Conservative convention, Peter Lougheed issued a challenge to his party to take a positive attitude for Alberta, in a Canadian confederation that would recognize regional strengths and weaknesses.
On October 5, 1982, an election was called for November 2. Many expected the separatist party (Western Canadian Concept) to elect several MLAs but the Progressive Conservatives elected 75 out of 79 Members, with two NDPs and two Independents.
In the next two years, damage to Alberta’s economy became quite severe as world petroleum prices collapsed (federal policies continued to hurt) and agricultural prices also suffered. A more positive development was the election of a Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa- a government which tried to heal the decades of bitterness felt in Alberta towards discriminatory federal policies.
In June of 1985, after twenty years as party leader and 14 years as Premier, Peter Lougheed announced his retirement. The accolades for his tenure were widespread, as a “man of strong, personal vision” and “a first-rate champion of his province”. He left “on the same high note he came in”.