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Alberta Tories miss Lougheed's inclusive approach

If the Progressive Conservatives go down to defeat in Monday's general election in Alberta, it will be because a central tenet of the party's early success was ignored.

It was Peter Lougheed who built the foundation of the Tories' four-decades-old dynasty upon the principle that the path to a happy, contented party starts at the door of the government caucus. As such, he gave his backbench MLAs unprecedented authority to overrule decisions of cabinet.

"I was aware that I was a leader with members who had diverse views," Mr. Lougheed said in an interview this week. "And I knew it was really important for me to capture the diversity of those views in a way that they were all comfortable with the decision making."

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Mr. Lougheed would rule this way for 14 years – a tenure devoid of any significant internal tension and strife, and in marked contrast to the more tenuous mandates of recent PC leaders Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford.

Polls would indicate the Tories are heading to defeat at the hands of Wildrose, a political entity born of the disenchantment felt by those on the conservative wing of the province's long-time governing party. If it happens, political historians will be examining the entrails of the cataclysmic shift in Alberta politics for years to come.

The seeds of the Wildrose's resurgence were likely sown years ago, in the massive majorities that the Tories routinely racked up. Facing literally no opposition on the right, the only room for the party to grow was on the left. As Alberta became a more urban province, it was also a strategy that seemed compatible with an urge to appear more modern and desirable to a voter who had more cosmopolitan tastes and interests.

Conservatives in the party could live with a policy agenda that was more socially liberal but not one that was fiscally imprudent or that didn't adhere to the low tax principles that were the bedrock of business in Alberta. And so when Premier Ed Stelmach hiked oil and gas royalties there was outrage, both inside and outside his caucus. Donations started pouring in to the upstart Wildrose. When Mr. Stelmach started running deficits there was additional fury. His policies eventually led to the defection of two of his MLAs to Wildrose.

When Alison Redford took over, she introduced another deficit budget that contained wild spending promises. Like her political hero Peter Lougheed, Ms. Redford comes from the progressive wing of the party. But the PC leader's ultimate failing may be that she refused to throw her conservative base even the tiniest bit of red meat to satiate its appetite. It would, at this point anyway, appear to be a remarkable error in judgment – and one that seems unimaginable during Mr. Lougheed's reign.

"Our caucus represented such a broad cross section of the province because we had such large majorities," Mr. Lougheed remembers. "That's why it was so important to hear from all MLAs because they represented all those constituencies. That's why we gave them ultimate authority on issues because they really represented the people."

A common sense doctrine that would be forgotten.

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The fracturing of the centre-right coalition in Alberta has obvious similarities with one occurring next door in British Columbia to the governing Liberal party.

While both cases serve as modern-day examples of the perils of leading big-tent coalitions, they may also be a manifestation of a right-wing surge. With a majority government in Ottawa, conservative-minded voters in Canada's two most western provinces seem to have found a little swagger and are certainly less inclined to support coalitions that diminish or worse ignore their wants and needs.

And today, those conservatives in B.C. and Alberta have credible, attractive options that haven't previously existed.

"I think you can fairly make the argument that now that right wingers are having success on the federal stage, they're less willing to compromise at the provincial stage," says Royce Koop, a public policy professor at Simon Fraser University. "But I also think this is a story about leadership. We're not having this conversation without [Wildrose leader]Danielle Smith, and the broad appeal she has and the terrific campaign she has run. In B.C., John Cummins is a name politician who had instant credibility with conservative-minded voters."

But for all the similarities between the fracturing coalitions in Alberta and B.C., there is one glaring difference: Those disaffected conservatives in Alberta have less to lose by voting Wildrose. If the party doesn't win power, it will be the PCs that do – and this time around they are likely do a much better job of tending to the coalition. In B.C., by supporting the Conservatives and not the Liberals, voters there could help elect a left-wing New Democratic Party government. And that is a far different option than Wildrose supporters face.

For now, however, the focus is on Alberta and the imminent threat to one of the longest political dynasties in the Western world. Peter Lougheed must consider his party's situation and think how avoidable it could all have been. But like the discreet figure he's been in retirement, he's not too talkative on that subject.

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"You must have some thoughts on what has happened?" he's asked.

"Yes," he replies. "But not ones you're going to get."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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