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Letter from Alberta

Endorsement from Peter Lougheed is gold in Alberta political currency Add to ...

When young buck Alberta politician Peter Lougheed campaigned in 1971 with his upstart Progressive Conservative Party to take down the long-reigning Social Credit Party, he never imagined the resonance the slogan “36 years is enough” would have.

Now, 40 years later, the party he helped found is still governing and in the midst of a leadership race. A provincial election could be held as early as this fall.

Mr. Lougheed never imagined the Tories would rule for this long - a feat that he confessed is both exciting and embarrassing.

“That’s why I wouldn’t have campaigned on ‘36 years is enough,’” he explained.

Mr. Lougheed, who was Alberta’s premier from 1971 to 1985, and at the age of 83, toils at blue chip law firm Bennett Jones in Calgary, still commands attention in political circles.

An endorsement from him, even a scrap of advice, is gold in political currency.

But Mr. Lougheed is loathe to publicly offer specific guidance to the leadership candidates. (“I’m not giving advice.”) And, he flatly refused to follow in the footsteps of former premier Don Getty, who has given his support to leadership hopeful Doug Horner, or former premier Ralph Klein, who has offered his backing to perceived front-runner Gary Mar. (“My position ... definitely will be neutral.”)

Party faithful vote on Sept. 17, but if there’s no clear majority winner among the six candidates running to replace Premier Ed Stelmach, a second ballot will be held on Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, Danielle Smith and her upstart, right-wing Wildrose Party is using this changing of the Tory guard as an opportunity to steal a page from Mr. Lougheed’s 1971 playbook. Wildrose news releases, MLAs and candidates are quick to say “40 years is enough!”

Are they trying to take a little bit of that old Tory shine and adopt it for themselves?

“I think they are,” Mr. Lougheed said, laughing, “I think they are.”

But beyond that, he shrugged off any comparisons.

“We recognized that the people of Alberta were neither on the right, nor on the left, but they were in the centre and that’s the way we campaigned and we campaigned very much on a positive campaign,” he said.

Even after four decades, Mr. Lougheed said he’s not sure the “middle of the road” folks in Alberta have changed that much. Still, since the Tories are considered right of centre, some observers have suggested there’s a danger of a vote split to the right with the Wildrose. Mr. Lougheed will not submit his analysis of the modern-day political landscape.

“That’s the first question you raised that I’m not answering,” he said.

Still, he remains “optimistic” for the future of the party and said he was pleased with the “quality” of the Tory leadership candidates. And if you listen closely, he does have some advice the next premier may want to pay attention to.

What should be done to buffer the oil sands from the attacks of environmentalists?

“Alberta should take the position of trying to develop a second market for both our oil and our natural gas, our oil in particular, into Asia and China,” said Mr. Lougheed, adding that improving technology will also help address environmental concerns.

Invest in the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Mr. Lougheed’s considers it one of his proudest initiatives while premier, but the rainy day fund fell out of favour during the Klein years with the introduction of a new Sustainability Fund. The most recent provincial budget figures placed the Heritage Fund fair market value at $15.1-billion.

“I’m disappointed,” Mr. Lougheed said, “...If they had continued putting in 30 per cent of resource revenues, it would have now been up to almost $100-billion.”

As far as Mr. Lougheed’s concerned, the fund has remained popular with the public as a tangible piggy bank for future generations.

“It connected with the public,” he said.

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