Peter Lougheed was a Progressive Conservative in politics, a Tory in thinking, a gentleman in life, a lawyer in profession, an Albertan in breeding, a Canadian at heart.
He won his last election 30 years ago. Yet, for all but the youngest Albertans, he’s remembered as the best premier Alberta ever had. He would walk the streets of Calgary, or any other Alberta city or town, years after leaving public life and be hailed as “Mr. Premier” or just plain “Peter.” Small of stature but large of reputation, he recalled a time and a government when some of the province’s best and brightest wanted to serve, because it meant working with and under him.
Modern Alberta came of age with Peter Lougheed. He both reflected that modernization and hastened it. He was elected premier in 1971, just before the world oil shock sent world prices soaring, creating a bonanza for Alberta. Suddenly, the province got rich. With that wealth came money and people flocking to Alberta, Albertans moving to Calgary and Edmonton, and a determination by federal governments to spread Alberta’s wealth around the country. They were turbulent times, to say the least, what with energy revenue a national issue, constitutional battles emerging, fiscal deficits growing and governments wrestling with the challenges of stagflation, the deadly mixture of high interest rates, high unemployment and slow growth.
Mr. Lougheed, defending Alberta’s jurisdictional turf in conflicts with Liberal and Conservative governments in Ottawa, navigated his province through these shoals. The shame of his successors is that they took two of his cardinal convictions and discarded them in the rush for quick spoils and easy money – that natural resource revenues belong to the people and should be developed in a measured, balanced fashion, and that considerable money from those resources should be husbanded in a Heritage Fund for future generations.
Mr. Lougheed built what had been the ramshackle Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta into an unstoppable powerhouse. He won four elections between 1971 and 1982 and could have won more, but decided, as the wisest of leaders do, to quit while he was on top. He won for many reasons: his personal energy, drive, attention to detail, communications skills, dedication to advancing and defending Alberta’s interests, and, most of all, because he governed as a Tory and behaved like a gentleman.
Tories are an increasingly endangered political species in Canada. They exist only on the periphery of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. They are almost extinct in the country’s think tank, blogging and right-wing media worlds. They almost disappeared in the Alberta PC Party under Ralph Klein, a populist. Now, a Tory has returned as Alberta’s Premier, Alison Redford, who assembled a wide coalition to win the last election, describing herself as a “Lougheed Conservative.” His legacy, or at least his inspiration, has returned after a long time in the wilderness.
Mr. Lougheed governed not as an ideological opponent of the state – the red meat of modern-day conservative thinking – but as its ally. The state, he believed, was the people’s friend, which is what Tories tend to believe. And he used the state aggressively, perhaps in a few cases too aggressively, to buy an airline and make public investments, help the early oil-sands industry get its legs, create the Heritage Fund, build new social programs – all the while believing in the free-enterprise system as the best wealth-creation generator. He used the state aggressively, when necessary, against what he saw could be invidious practices of the oil and gas industry, for which he was banned from the Petroleum Club.
Put simply, Mr. Lougheed always understood the importance of the industry for Alberta, but he never directly equated its interests with the wider interests of Alberta. Indeed, one of his driving but unrequited ambitions was to make the province’s economy more diversified by investing some of the “rents” from oil and gas into other sectors. That was precisely the approach recommended by a blue-ribbon panel on Alberta’s future created by Ed Stelmach – a report that was dead on publication in post-Lougheed Alberta.
Mr. Lougheed could have been federal opposition leader and perhaps prime minister. He was urged repeatedly by the PCs to consider running for their party’s leadership. He always said no, partly because, as Alberta premier, he wielded more influence than an opposition leader, but largely because he could not speak French, an attribute he considered indispensable for national leaders.
The gap led him, it could be argued, into a fundamental misunderstanding that Alberta, pursuing a decentralizing agenda within Canada, could become bedfellows with the separatist government of René Lévesque (the same mistake Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith seems to be making in her initial comments about the election of the Parti Québécois).
There were fragile Alberta-Quebec alliances in Mr. Lougheed’s time. But any lasting partnership between the leader of a province whose citizens are strongly committed to a united Canada, as all polls always show, and the leader of a government committed to breaking up Canada was always destined for heartbreak – which is what happened when Mr. Lougheed supported a constitutional deal that produced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a reassertion of provincial autonomy over natural resources, a pact that was denounced as an anti-Quebec scheme by Mr. Lévesque and became known, in the lexicon of Quebec nationalism, as the “night of the long knives,” with Mr. Lougheed’s being among the hands on the knife.
Mr. Lougheed fought with federal governments but never with the idea of Canada. He was a Canadian patriot who wore the flag on his sleeve and, after leaving politics, participated in a wide range of national organizations. He once complained privately how ticked off he was, as a board member, when Canadian Pacific let Fairmont drop the word “Canadian” from the hotels it had purchased. He despaired at the lack of historical knowledge of Canadians.
He loved the Canadian Football League, where he once wore the uniform of the Edmonton Eskimos and banged up his knees such that they had to be replaced later in life. He did an MBA at Harvard, worked briefly in Texas, knew many prominent Americans, participated in the Trilateral Commission, liked Americans and worked with them, but never aped the U.S. or thought that things were axiomatically better down there, as many Conservatives did, especially in the 1990s.
He had an innate curiosity. When he would meet someone from, say, Ottawa, he would want to talk about national issues, or even international ones. He would ask as many questions as he would offer his own opinions. He wanted to know down to the smallest details, which is what every civil servant who worked with him quickly appreciated. He knew much about many things, but he also knew what he didn’t know, the surest sign of keen intelligence.
He had strong ideas, but not for him the facile certainties of ideology that are so much in evidence in Conservative Ottawa and in the wider conservative world. Facts mattered to him. And he could be friends, or at least establish a respectful relationship, with those with whom he sometimes disagreed, as with NDP premier Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan and even, believe it or not, Pierre Trudeau.
He could be brave, as when he said that hell-bent development of bitumen resources was a mistake, and should be replaced by a moratorium followed by measured development. He didn’t like the Reform Party, and said so privately, dismissing it as the modern iteration of the Social Credit Party he had defeated long ago. Reform creator Preston Manning he thought the modern version of his father, Ernest, the long-time Social Credit premier. Indeed, the modern history of Alberta politics, now that Wildrose has become the Official Opposition, can be crudely read as the competing visions within the Alberta conservative world of the approaches of the Mannings and Peter Lougheed, with the Lougheed vision now in power in Edmonton and the Manning vision now in power in Ottawa and entrenched in Wildrose.
He was a friend to many. Those privileged to enjoy that friendship were grateful, because it was a friendship with someone who, like everyone, had his faults and foibles but whose virtues and spirit and curiosity and energy will endure as an abiding memory.
For more from Jeffrey Simpson, follow him on Facebook
Editor's Note: Peter Lougheed won his last election 30 years ago. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: