The natural reaction to Peter Lougheed’s death is to look back at the highlights and accomplishments of a remarkable political career. But a further response would be to think about what might have been.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that the federal Progressive Conservative leadership was there for Lougheed’s taking in 1976. He’d certainly have been the front-runner. And a convention that ultimately awarded the prize to the little known Joe Clark would hardly have passed over the popular premier of Alberta.
Various reasons have been offered for Lougheed’s reluctance.
At the time, internationally-driven energy prices were a source of conflict, with Eastern Canada being of the view that it was entitled to Alberta’s oil on the cheap. Some, such as the NDP’s David Lewis, described Albertans and Lougheed as the “blue-eyed sheiks.”
There was also the matter of power. Lougheed enjoyed being premier, which was a job with more oomph than that of leader of the Opposition in Ottawa. To be sure, the Opposition leader might become prime minister, but then again he mightn’t.
And there was the nagging question of the ability to communicate in French. In an era where additional importance was being placed on language, Lougheed was lacking in that regard.
Still, Pierre Trudeau had become so unpopular by 1979 that it’s hard to imagine a Lougheed-led Opposition not doing at least as well as Clark did in that year’s federal election. And being a much more adept politician than Clark, Lougheed would surely not have fumbled away his government within a matter of months. Accordingly, Trudeau’s retirement would have continued as per plan, with no political resurrection and no second act.
Had that happened, Canada today would be quite a different place.
For one thing, there’d have been no National Energy Program (NEP). And the Liberal brand wouldn’t be quite as toxic as it currently is in Alberta.
There’d also have been no repatriation of the Constitution and no Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For many, this would be a loss, the intervening years having provided the Charter with an iconic status. Others would be less bothered, remembering that pre-Charter Canada enjoyed a full range of freedoms, including democracy, free speech, due process, and so forth.
And absent repatriation, there’d be no legend of Rene Levesque being “stabbed in the back” during the infamous “Night of Long Knives,” and thus no meme of Quebec being “left out” of the Constitution. There’d also have been no rancorous debates over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.
Then there’s the transformation of conservative politics in Canada. Lougheed, after all, was a Red Tory, a once dominant species. Further, his initial rise had been at the expense of Alberta’s Social Credit, a dynasty that had been presided over for decades by Preston Manning’s father. So the rise of Reform would not have been a welcome development to him.
That rise can be ascribed to a range of factors. Western alienation exacerbated by the energy price wars and the NEP; resentment of a federal establishment that was perceived as favouring Central Canada, particularly Quebec; distaste for the ongoing obsession with constitutional change; concern about the spiralling fiscal deficit; and what evolved into a visceral dislike for aspects of Brian Mulroney’s personality.
Taken together, these factors provided the perfect storm to facilitate Reform’s 1993 breakthrough. And, thanks also to their subsequent political ineptitude, the federal Progressive Conservatives were essentially dead within a few years.
But had Lougheed become prime minister in 1979 and remained in office through the 1980s, the ground would have been far less fertile for Reform. There’d have been no NEP, and no constitutional saga. With his respect for provincial rights and insistence that the West deserved its due, alienation would have been substantially diluted. And there’d have been no Mulroney to act as a lightning rod during the years of Reform’s rise.
Of course, there were other pressures which would have pushed conservative politics towards the right. One only has to look at Ralph Klein’s rise in Alberta and Mike Harris’s ascent in Ontario. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, had Lougheed made the move in 1976, today’s political landscape would be different.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics. See more at www.troymedia.com.