He’s the founding father of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative dynasty, one that’s now imperilled by a divide among the province’s conservatives, but Peter Lougheed isn’t wavering on where his loyalties lie.
Mr. Lougheed has been campaigning for PC Leader Alison Redford, a politician cut from the same cloth: both are Calgary lawyers from the party’s progressive wing who share big government, interventionist sentiments and reject firewall politics, saying the province can’t consider itself an island in Confederation.
“She’s positive and she’s a positive thinker, and she has an up-to-date view of the province,” Mr. Lougheed, 83, told CTV in an interview aired late last week. When the campaign began, he shared similar sentiments, telling The Globe he has remained “quite impressed” by Ms. Redford since meeting her 30 years ago, when she served as the president of the party’s youth wing. “She is a pretty determined gal, and I think she is going to succeed,” he said.
With election day one week away and Ms. Redford trailing the right-wing Wildrose Party in most polls, she’ll take all the backing she can get as she hopes to revive Mr. Lougheed’s legacy. She has described him as nothing less than the reason she joined the party. She is, however, running away from much of their party’s record – its current ad campaign says the Redford team is “not your father’s PC party.”
Mr. Lougheed nonetheless backs Ms. Redford’s changes as “important” to the party’s survival, and he has gone public on his own, with campaign staff insisting they didn’t call on him for support. (He was set to appear for a photo with Ms. Redford Sunday, but the event was cancelled. The party offered two explanations: One said Mr. Lougheed was ill, another said he had a family commitment.)
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith – who also invokes Mr. Lougheed’s name on the campaign trail – brushed off the impact. “It’s kind of tragic, actually, that it is considered news for a former premier of the PC Party to endorse the current leader of the PC Party. That should just be a given,” she said Sunday.
It’s not always a given – in 1993, the last time the PCs faced a serious challenge, Mr. Lougheed avoided backing then-leader Ralph Klein. The two remain at odds. “Not only did he not endorse premier Klein, on a couple occasions he made pointed criticisms of Mr. Klein’s efforts to eliminate the deficit and pay off the debt,” says Rod Love, Mr. Klein’s long-time chief of staff.
The effect of Mr. Lougheed’s endorsement, as such, is unclear. It may serve as a rallying cry for some, but, these days, many in the fast-growing province know Mr. Lougheed only as the namesake of a Calgary hospital. “For most Albertans, he’s a distant memory. A respected memory, but a distant memory,” said David Taras, a political analyst and professor from Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “And I’m not sure he can rally that much public support, if any.”
Ms. Redford’s policies evoke those of Mr. Lougheed. One of her first campaign announcements was to revive his Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority with $150-million in annual research funding to diversify the province’s energy sector. The Wildrose Party dismisses it as a corporate giveaway.
Mr. Lougheed met the PC Leader for coffee in December, and Ms. Redford says she was inspired by his emphasis on building relationships with other premiers and in setting a long-term vision for the province.
“One of the things I learned from him, as I said in the beginning, is you set that course, and you put the planning in place and then you build on that and manage that,” Ms. Redford said in a recent interview. “Because that is what Albertans trust and what voters trust.”
However, at a time when conservatives are split in a bitter election battle, Mr. Lougheed is no silver bullet. Many who backed Mr. Klein’s brand of leadership, for instance, are long gone – his one-time constituency association president and prominent PC backer, Hal Walker, is now a major Wildrose figure, while Mr. Love declined to say who he’ll vote for.
“I think I would say that most of the long-time supporters of Mr. Klein are also in many ways conflicted by the current state of the conservative movement in Alberta,” Mr. Love said. “Certainly many have gone over to the Wildrose, there’s no doubt about it.”
With one week left, Mr. Lougheed is calling on them to return to the fold.
With a report from Sandra Martin and The Canadian Press