Will that be Klein or Lougheed?

Each wore the mantle of Progressive Conservative Premier, but were as different as could be.

Each wore the mantle of Progressive Conservative Premier, but were as different as could be.

Peter Lougheed was a visionary who knew and used the power of government to shape the future of Alberta and Albertan society.

Ralph Klein believed in leaving leadership to the private sector, keeping taxes low, and getting government out of the way.

Now, their spiritual heirs are locked in the most competitive election Albertans have seen since 1993, when former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore’s Liberals came within a few thousands of votes of wresting power from Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservatives.

As Albertans go to the polls on April 23, the Tories are in a real competition. Not just with opposition parties, but at their own family table. Like a prodigal daughter returned from afar, Premier Allison Redford is reminding her party they’re Progressive Conservatives.

And that doesn’t sit well at all with the aging men who’ve run the province for the last 20 years, fellows much more comfortable with Stephen Harper’s brand of conservative politics.

The prime minister lent Redford his campaign bus. Yet many Harper staffers, strategists and advisers have come home from Ottawa to set up camp with Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Alliance: a party founded with big cheques from a handful of anonymous Calgarians.

Smith draws from the hard-right conservatives who founded the Reform Party while Brian Mulroney led a PC government in Ottawa, the ones who morphed into the Canadian Alliance, and eventually became the Harper Tories.

With Redford, the old PC brand is back from the dead. She won an insurgent campaign for the Alberta conservative leadership, running with scant backing against the party itself. The hard right backed a small-r republican, Ted Morton, while the progressives anointed Gary Mar. Her victory stunned the party, especially since Mar won the first round and led on every preferential ballot save the last.

Redford knows Alberta has changed, and the province’s politics needed to catch up. As a young lawyer, she served Joe Clark and Mulroney during the end of the Cold War. She worked on the South African constitutional court post-apartheid, and supervised Afghanistan’s first democratic election. Small wonder Redford baffled the old guard, and sundered the fraying big tent of the ruling party.

She promised “world-class, fully-funded public services (that) are there when you need them, no matter what you need them for.”

This was heresy to the old guard, many of whom kept trying to privatize education, replace public works with privately-funded rent-back schemes for highways, schools, transit. With Klein, they tried to break and bankrupt public health care to replace it with a “third-way” hybrid led by private care.

They had nearly succeeded by 2010. Health Minister Ron Liepert, a reckless man given to bluster and bravado, dismissed the entire administration of Alberta’s health system. He replaced them with a “super board” of business people unschooled in running a health system, and deliberately excluded health professionals from management.

Liepert’s colossal blunder, duly abetted by Klein’s successor Premier Ed Stelmach, started the unravelling. A junior health minister, Dr. Raj Sherman, angrily left the Tory caucus and now leads the revamped Liberals.

Redford not only backs public health care, she has already started to take it out of the political arena and return its management to trained and qualified professionals.

The old-guard Tories had begun to lose their way long before, however. Citizens began to give up on their politics; by the 2008 election, only 41 per cent of the electorate felt the need to vote. The thirst for change spawned the Wildrose, boosted the NDP, and launched the centrist Alberta Party, seeking voters who had given up on politics.

In fact, in this election, some ridings are five-way fights.

Yet the main contest is between Smith’s small-government republicans and Redford’s band of progressives (and a few leftover conservatives), with more than 35 new faces on the PC election slate.

In effect, Albertans are being asked to decide if they prefer Ralph Klein’s brand of laissez-faire populism, or Peter Lougheed’s active embrace of the challenges and opportunities of the future.

In this election, no one can say that Albertans didn’t have a clear choice.

Satya Das is Founder and Principal of Cambridge Strategies Inc. His career in journalism spanned the last quarter of the 20th century, as reporter, administrator, editorialist, columnist and foreign correspondent.