Lougheed: The Arrival of Modern Alberta

By Lee Richardson

The dirty thirties were not kind to Alberta. The Great Depression had ravaged farms, families and fortunes. In Calgary, as his grandson watched with foreboding, the estate of Senator Sir James Lougheed, a pillar of the community (and instrumental in Alberta’s becoming a province in 1905), was auctioned for taxes. The contents of the stately Beaulieu were going for a pittance. Suddenly from the back corner, as the late senator’s entire library sold for $25, a young voice cried, “That’s a steal!”

It seemed so unfair to a 10-year-old Peter Lougheed, witnessing the loss of Beaulieu and the loss of his own family’s home during the Depression. There was something wrong with a system that would let this occur. How did it happen, he wondered. Could it have been avoided? How could we run things differently?

It was a pivotal moment in the life of the man who 30 years later began to transform Alberta from an agrarian hinterland into the most dynamic province in Canada and restored a pride of place, a positive spirit and promise of the future….

When Ernest Manning’s successor, the lacklustre Harry Strom, called a snap election in July 1971, Lougheed was prepared with solid constituency organizations, a slate of credible candidates, a campaign plan and (just in case) a blueprint for government. While Strom may have had some idea of what lay ahead (as post-election Lougheed staffers discerned from Social Credit polling data found discarded in the former premier’s office), he could not have imagined what was coming in the campaign of 1971.

As if hearing a starter’s pistol, as soon as the writ was dropped, well-prepared Progressive Conservative volunteers were dropping preprinted election brochures in mailboxes the very evening Premier Strom called the election. Progressive Conservative billboards, bus benches and lawn signs began to appear the next day.

From the 1930s, the Social Credit message had been for the most part delivered from pulpits, disseminated by affiliated religious groups across the province and supported by the weekly radio broadcasts of Back to the Bible Hour. The voices of first William Aberhart and later Manning had been heard across the Prairies each Sunday evening for 40 years. In many rural areas (or for city folk driving home from a weekend of skiing in the Rockies), it was the only thing you could get on the scratchy AM band of the car radio.

Radio advertising was and remained Social Credit’s principal campaign vehicle. It was now seven years since Marshall McLuhan had published the iconic Understanding Media; in 1971 Peter Lougheed knew the medium was television and he was a star. He had not only cultivated the media over the preceding four years but had studied and cultivated the medium. The Progressive Conservatives spent 85 per cent of their media budget on television in the 1971 campaign. The Socreds stuck with radio.

Lougheed’s campaign was never critical of the Social Credit government but offered a positive alternative. The PC message, “Guideposts for the Future,” was one of diversification, economic development and maximizing the return to Albertans from their non-renewable oil and gas reserves. The vibrant, progressive message saturated the province, and the positive Lougheed image captivated Albertans.

In the final week of the campaign, a symbolic three-letter word was appended to PC billboards, lawn signs and television commercials. NOW! was Alberta’s time. On August 30, 1971, Lougheed’s party won 49 of 75 seats and became Alberta’s first Progressive Conservative government.

Lougheed was an early riser and often began his day with a run in the clear morning air. It was his unencumbered thinking time. Though his thorough preparation had produced a clear transition plan and a detailed blueprint for governing, the results of the election would require quiet reflection. Changing voting patterns and the distribution of seats confirmed the growing heterogeneity and demographic divergence he had sensed as he criss-crossed the province during the election campaign. Clearly this was not the monolithic, uniform electorate enjoyed for decades by the previous administration. The new premier had this in mind as he considered the appointment of his first cabinet.

There were eight ministers in William Aberhart’s first cabinet, nine in the first executive council of Premier Manning. Decisions of their governments were made solely by the premier and cabinet, who in the largely agrarian, homogeneous Alberta of the time could no doubt reflect and represent the sentiments and opinion of the broader population, without much need of consultation with the electorate (or their MLAs). By 1971 the Social Credit cabinet had grown to 15 ministers, who likely presumed that they too could adequately represent the views of all Albertans. But in contemporary Alberta, as much as the old leadership believed that all Albertans thought the way they did and shared their conclusions, it just wasn’t like that anymore.

To stay “in touch” with Albertans and better represent a wider range of views and form a broader consensus, Lougheed increased the cabinet to 22 ministers, representing the apparent urban–rural differences (notably with the strength of his “rural lieutenant” and deputy premier, Hugh Horner) as well as the increasing demographic diversity of the province.

Instinctively Lougheed knew he would also rely heavily on the innate perceptions, regional knowledge and opinions of his caucus.

During the Manning administration, the Legislature sat for only two months a year. The Social Credit caucus did not meet when the Legislature was not in session. The Lougheed caucus enjoyed a closer relationship. During the legislative session, the entire Progressive Conservative caucus met with the premier every day before Question Period to review current issues. Each Thursday they gathered for a half-day session at the stately Government House. A few kilometres from the Legislature in Edmonton, the three-storey sandstone mansion had been purchased by the government in 1910 to house the lieutenant governor of Alberta.

The home had been lost to the Queen’s representative and sold during the Depression (in the same year as the sale of the Lougheed family home in Calgary). The Aberhart government attributed the closure of Government House to necessary cost-cutting measures. Many suspected it had as much to do with the refusal of Lieutenant Governor John Bowen to grant royal assent to two Social Credit bills that would have placed the province’s banks under government control and a third, the Accurate News and Information Act, that would have forced newspapers in Alberta to print rebuttals to stories the cabinet objected to. The building was reacquired in 1964 and subsequently used for ceremonial events and as a conference centre for the government.

Gathering at Government House gave caucus meetings an air of importance and significance. And significant they were to the new premier. Lougheed’s insistence on random seating around the large circular table in the third-floor conference room signalled a parity among members and established that in caucus all voices were equal. In Lougheed’s government, the caucus was paramount. He made it clear from the first meeting that in the making of key decisions, caucus overrides cabinet.

It was here that consensus was reached, where decisions were made. Caucus was the sounding board as well as a source of new ideas and proposed legislation, where views from every part of Alberta, as diverse as the province itself, were shared in thoughtful, civil discourse and all were encouraged to express their opinions. The team came together and gave the premier confidence that decisions reached reflected a true and democratic Alberta consensus.

On the practical side, with any differences or difficulties worked out in caucus when a new program or legislation was introduced in the Legislature, there wasn’t much room for criticism. The opposition found little to disagree with. Once, observing the placid Alberta Legislature in action from the press gallery above, journalist Allan Fotheringham would quip, “It’s like a nunnery in recess.” And that’s just the way Premier Lougheed liked it. No surprises.

The solidarity and confidence of his caucus would soon become an even greater asset, as would his timely modernization and control of the administration and workings of the Alberta government.

Creating a modern Alberta in 1971 would require the implementation of efficient business systems, processes and controls where none existed. In the executive council offices, for example, there were no minutes or agendas of previous cabinet meetings—none were taken. The only records of cabinet meetings were of orders-in-council. There were no formal decision-making processes apparent. Lougheed brought contemporary management systems, fiscal controls and oversight to the executive council that would provide a basis for transforming the moribund administration he had inherited. He turned to trusted professionals, many from the private sector, to enhance or depose the existing bureaucracy.

Among the first appointments were respected former banker and Mannix executive A.F. (Chip) Collins as deputy provincial treasurer, and David Wood, a writer and trusted public relations counsel who would create the Alberta Public Affairs Bureau to organize all government information services. During his first term, Lougheed replaced 70 per cent of the deputy ministers from the previous government and established the competent, effective and responsive administration he would rely upon in the years ahead.

Foresight and perhaps prescient planning were also reflected in early legislation of the new government. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that the Lougheed government had already passed legislation increasing royalties to the province before the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut exports in 1973, quadrupling the value of Alberta’s resources and setting off events that would demand all of the talents of the new premier, his team and his administration.

In the battles to come, Lougheed would be well served by the solid foundation he had built in Alberta and the loyalty he inspired. His base secure, he could focus on external challenges as they arose. He gave Albertans the confidence to believe in themselves as full and equal partners in our Confederation. At the 1981 constitutional conference, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked the first ministers rhetorically, “Who speaks for Canada?” Lougheed replied, “We all do.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia presents a fitting tribute: “Lougheed has become a Canadian icon, respected for the values he brought to his political career: competence, astuteness, integrity and an unwavering commitment to the welfare of the people of Alberta and Canada.”

It’s not just history that will remember Peter Lougheed fondly, but all those who have known him along the way.

Lee Richardson was a Conservative MP who most recently represented Calgary-Centre (2004–2012). A longer version of this article was originally published in Policy Options, June 1, 2012.


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