Forty-one years ago, as a young volunteer, this writer donned a freshly ironed blouse and home-made lavender pencil skirt to deliver leaflets in her tiny Alberta town for Peter Lougheed, taking part in the election of a Canadian colossus.
This week, Canada braced itself for another earthquake out of Alberta, and we got one.
Where to begin?
The spectacular collapse of the Wildrose Alliance makes a natural headline. Danielle Smith's debate performance, in which she was booed for doubting climate science, spelled trouble, and within days, the air was coming out of her tires.
Soon enough, the wheels flew right off. Two absurdly paleolithic candidates met with what amounted to a shrug from their photogenic leader who was more troubled by climate scientists than her own gay-bashing candidates.
In a single stroke Wildrose was exposed as a party bereft of substance, led by an impostor, and the entire campaign disintegrated like a house of sand.
Yet, a focus here misses the true earthquake. This election was in reality a titanic clash between two giants of Canadian conservatism––Peter Lougheed and Stephen Harper. Its outcome will shape our future.
Forming government in 1971 with a Harvard MBA, a piercing intellect and a cool confidence, Peter Lougheed swiftly asserted strong government powers. He raised royalties from the oil sector, enacted a provincial bill of rights and reformed matrimonial property law. He purchased Pacific Western Airlines, opening the oil-sands to development, founded the publicly owned
Alberta Energy Company, fought epic battles with Ottawa and introduced the Alberta Heritage Fund.
Through it all Lougheed bent Alberta’s most powerful interests to his will, employing their strength in service of a long-term vision of prosperity and stability for all. In spirit, if not in fact, Peter Lougheed is Alberta’s father of Confederation.
Yet his retirement in 1985 heralded a radical challenge to traditional conservatism. An ideological right wing emerged that grew out of both Albertan separatism and the Reform Party, of which Stephen Harper was a chief architect. This new movement questioned the very legitimacy of
government, opposing universality of social programs and government regulation.
Harper himself characterized Canada to a US audience as a “welfare state in the worst sense,” writing in the Globe and Mail in 1995 that for core Reformers, the “g-issues” of “guns, gays, and government grants” were their key issues. He strongly opposed reform and regulation of banking
and finance when Paul Martin introduced it as Liberal finance minister.
Over time the Reformers became the Alliance, finally merging with the federal Progressive Conservatives in 2003. The common thread is Stephen Harper. Moderated for a national audience, his brand of conservatism took hold with an iron grip, to the point that anyone advocating a Lougheed-style government today would be, and is, branded a socialist.
By slow incremental steps, the Harper view of market dominance as a primary arbiter of government policy came to dominate discourse on the right.
Put simply, if the market don’t fix it, it ain’t broke.
As prime minister, Stephen Harper significantly moderated his early rhetoric, but its traces can be seen in his aggressive moves against the environmental movement and emphasis on crime, prisons and the drug war.
But make no mistake, the Wildrose Alliance is the Alberta manifestation of Harper conservatism. His interfering hand is evident in the tireless efforts of his former generals Tom Flanagan and Rod Love, who sent all the king's horses and all the king’s men to capture the prize.
But the old lion Lougheed, facing near certain defeat for Alison Redford, ventured from his lair to meet them with a roar, serving notice that Alberta's conservative legacy was his to bestow, and Redford is his choice. Endowed with a first-rate mind, international experience, and an expansive view of Alberta’s role in Canada and the world, Redford is the modern embodiment all Lougheed’s ambitions.
In the end it was a rout. A stunning repudiation of the ideological conservatism and, in a curious twist, a rebuke of the prime minister himself. Alberta voted like the international powerhouse it is, electing a premier who strides the national and global stage with assurance.
In an outcome no one predicted, Canada’s suddenly unpopular prime minister’s government is now on its heels, isolated as the most far right in the country. And Harper is no longer master of his own house, Alberta. He’s forged no expansionary alliances, and his enemies are emboldened and multiplying. From here on, he’s playing defense.
That Alison Redford helms the country’s most powerful and dynamic province and owes no favours to Stephen Harper is a reality lost on no one.
But it’s a new day for Alberta and the country. The pretenders are vanquished, the sword is pulled from the stone. The true inheritor of Peter Lougheed's mantle has at long last emerged.
The curtain rises.