Robert Stanfield was often described as the best prime minister Canada never had. He was a great premier (Nova Scotia), became leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party, but had the ill fortune to appear on the national stage at the same time as Liberal Pierre Trudeau, to whom he lost three general elections in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Lougheed, who died last week at 84, was also a great Tory premier (Alberta). Earlier this year, a panel of eminent Canadians, assembled by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), a Montreal-based think tank, voted Lougheed Canada’s best premier of the past 40 years, ahead of Ontario’s Bill Davis and Saskatchewan’s Allan Blakeney, among others.
Unlike Stanfield, Lougheed resisted pressure – considerable pressure – to go federal. Although he stayed in provincial politics, he became a powerful and respected figure in national affairs.
I first encountered Lougheed in September 1967 during the federal Conservative leadership convention in Maple Leaf Gardens, the convention that chose Stanfield to replace John Diefenbaker. The convention was buzzing about Lougheed, the young new leader from the west, whose Tories had breached the Social Credit fortress of Alberta, having elected six MPPs in the provincial election a few months earlier.
Confession time. I cannot recall a single word Lougheed said when he addressed the crowd in Maple Leaf Gardens. But I do remember being impressed; here, clearly, was a bright new star, a politician to watch in the future. And I remember how dazzled the delegates were by him, his energy, and whatever it was he said to them so articulately that day.
When federal Tories talked about leadership in the years to come, the name of Lougheed inevitably sprang to their lips.
He had opportunities to go federal. The door swung wide open in 1976 when the Conservatives chose a successor to Stanfield. The leadership that year was won by another Albertan, Joe Clark, who came from third place, behind Claude Wagner and Brian Mulroney, to victory on the fourth ballot.
Clark, then a backbench Tory MP, would not have contested the leadership if Lougheed, by that time Alberta’s premier, had wanted the job. As it was, Clark won the next federal election, in 1979, albeit with a minority. With Lougheed as leader, the Conservatives would have almost certainly have elected a majority government.
The history of the 1980s would have been different. Surely, there would have been no national energy policy if Lougheed had been prime minister instead of Trudeau. But would the Constitution have been patriated? Would there be a Charter of Rights and Freedoms? With Lougheed in 24 Sussex, would Brian Mulroney ever have become Conservative leader and prime minister?
The “what-might-have-beens” of history make for fascinating speculation, but the “what-actually-happeneds” are interesting, too. Having taken his Alberta Tories from zero seats in 1965, when he became leader, to six in 1967, Lougheed went on to win a majority government in 1971, ending 36 years of unbroken Socred rule in the province.
With shrewd policies, careful management of abundant resources, fortuitous timing (and a certain amount of luck), he presided over Alberta’s transformation from a rural economy, a have-not province, into an economic powerhouse. He might not have been able to accomplish this feat in another province, but in Alberta he could. His admirers called him “Mr. Alberta.” His detractors in central Canada called him the “blue-eyed sheik.”
He was one of the few premiers smart enough, tough enough and brave enough to stand up to Trudeau at federal-provincial meetings.
When he retired in 1985, his Conservatives had been in office for 14 years. But his legacy – a strong Alberta in a united Canada – continues. The Tories are still in power. Having broken the Social Credit record for longevity, they have established one of their own: 41 years, and counting.eHw
Loughheed made a mark on his province and country. His mark is made in indelible ink.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at email@example.com