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The Second Coming of Peter Lougheed Add to ...

Not that the former premier has the province onside on all of this. "I don't represent with this view the majority of Albertans," Lougheed says. "But it's getting to be that more and more are agreeing with me. They're starting to be impacted by the cost factors all around us, and then they're saying, 'I remember Lougheed saying that we're going too fast.' "

Polls suggest Lougheed may be closer to the mainstream than he thinks. A poll conducted for the green-leaning Pembina Institute in the spring of 2007 reported that 71% of Albertans believe new oil sands approvals should be suspended until infrastructure and environmental issues have been addressed. And 74% think the rate of development should be managed by the provincial government, compared to the 20% who feel that the pace should be decided by market forces. Half of those polled believe oil sands development has been too fast; 56% thought that the province is not getting its fair share from its oil and gas resources.

Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank, believes that the former premier carries weight because he kept his powder dry and concentrated on the big issues. Moreover, as the Pembina numbers suggest, many people are receptive to his sort of ideas.

"Within the province, there is a very lively debate about the pace of growth, so Lougheed was speaking to a real audience," says Gibbins. "A fair bit of polling demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of Albertans supported a change in the royalty review and did not buy into the industry argument, and in fact was quite skeptical about the positive contribution of the industry to the province. I would be hesitant to say that Lougheed was speaking to a minority constituency."

If nothing else, the polls indicate an unexpected divergence between Alberta's people and its government--unexpected because the people (or at least those who voted in a record low turnout) returned the Tories under Stelmach in a landslide election victory last spring.

Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute says that Lougheed has seemed radical because Klein and Stelmach are of the small-c conservative school, which holds that if the pace of development is too fast, the market will correct it. It is not something for government to worry about.

"The ideology of the market pervades all the cabinet ministers," Severson-Baker declares. "When you sit down and chat with them, one of the first things they point out to you is, 'Look, we don't see it as our job to control the pace of development. That's for the market to decide.' "

The message from the Stelmach government is uncertain. The new Premier and his ministers may be convinced free-marketers. But, on royalties, they turned their backs on Klein, who was adamant that no revisions were necessary. "I think Mr. Stelmach came up with a pretty good balance," Lougheed says.

It amounts to raising about $2 billion more a year from the industry. The epithets that came from that side in reaction were predictable: Albertastan, disturbed, Goodbye Canada, socialist, killing the golden goose, shocked, aghast, Putinesque--all much the same as the complaints against Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams when he took on the oil companies over the province's offshore take.

"As soon as they saw it was a fait accompli, many of them pulled back," comments Lougheed, who has seen the pattern before. The retreat also had something to do with rising oil prices. "It's pretty hard to start crying when your share price is going way up and your profits are going way up, too."

Public-spirited Lougheed may be, but he is also settling accounts with Klein, the roughneck radio reporter-turned-politician who ruled Alberta from 1992 to 2006.

Peter McCormick, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, thinks of Klein as the interloper who stole the Conservative party from the party establishment; the establishment was, above all, Peter Lougheed, and the establishment regarded Klein as a hoodlum. Klein was the coarse, hard-drinking loudmouth who denounced eastern bums and creeps, and cursed homeless people. In contrast, the patrician Lougheed was the abstemious, superorganized workaholic who, as a politician, was as smooth as they come.

McCormick describes Lougheed as a creature of the 1970s. In that decade, there was a wave of provincial elections across Canada that returned reform governments. Regardless of party label, they were socially progressive, change-oriented, committed to the idea that government could solve problems and that government spending was a good thing--"a remarkable decade for politics; in many ways, we're spoiled rotten for having lived through it. We'll never get that again," says McCormick.

Much the same kind of enthusiasm comes from Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker, who looks back on the Lougheed regime as Alberta's halcyon days. Of his successors--Don Getty, Klein and Stelmach--Bricker says: "It's not been a pantheon of heroes."

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