Alberta vote result may be eerily familiar

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It was a cool evening some half century ago when I attended a meeting in Diamond City, Alta.

I joined 20 or 30 local farmers, ranchers and business people who had gathered to hear from a former football player, now a young lawyer from Edmonton.

The speaker was Peter Lougheed. None of us realized that this was part of a plodding rebirth of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party that would develop into a 40-year unassailable dynasty.

The party had been moribund for years until Lougheed got a foothold in the cities of Calgary and Edmonton. There followed a series of kitchen table-style meetings throughout the province.

At the time Alberta was still very much an agrarian society, even considering the growing influence of the oil and business capitals of the two major cities. Lougheed understood, however, that he had to build support from that rural base if he hoped to grow the party to a dominant position.

His success can’t be questioned. However, if current polls are to be believed, that dominance may end with next week’s provincial election.

Ironically, history seems on the verge of repeating itself in a number of ways.

Consider that the Conservatives took power by toppling the Social Credit dynasty in 1971. It had held a firm grip on the province since 1935.

The Conservatives were never in danger under Lougheed or his successor, Ralph Klein. The wheels only started to come off with the election of leader Ed Stelmach.

Red Tory Alison Redford has since replaced the bumbling Stelmach, but that seems only to have hastened the apparent disaster.

Here again the similarities loom large.

The Social Credit party was No. 1 in Alberta under its early leader William Aberhart, and under its second, the more successful Ernest Manning, father of Reform Party founder Preston Manning.

Trouble began for the Socreds after Manning retired in 1968 and was replaced by Harry Strom.

The beginning of the end came in the 1971 election, when Lougheed’s PCs ended Social Credit’s 36-year reign. After spending virtually all of its history as the governing party, the Socreds seemed lost as the Opposition.

Werner Schmidt took over from Strom, but the party’s support collapsed in the 1975 election, when it fell to four seats.

Now the upstart Wildrose party — it was formed just five years ago — seems poised to deliver the Conservatives a blow similar to the one that party in turn delivered to Social Credit.

The more things stay the same, however, the more they seem to have changed. Women are leading both Wildrose and Conservative parties to the polls: Danielle Smith for Wildrose and Redford, the Conservatives.

Even the visionaries who might have sat in on Peter Lougheed’s meetings in the mid-1960s would not have predicted that change within a relatively short span of 50-odd years.

Ontarians might be forgiven if they are inclined to ignore the Alberta vote. But they would do well to pay attention.

After all, Alberta is the province that stole Ontario’s crown prince status in Canada and is now the most economically important region in the country.

The politicians can claim only some credit for that resource-based shift of power from east to west, but at Queen’s Park that’s not the way our world is supposed to work.

The lesson is this: Successive governments, all from some place on the right of the political spectrum, have at least tried to be fiscally responsible in Alberta.