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Don Getty, premier who battled economic downturn much like today's, among last of Alberta Red Tory leaders

Don Getty

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As most of us come to understand the hard way, timing is everything, and not just in in football and politics.

As a football player, Don Getty's timing must have been pretty good. In a decade-long career (that began in 1955) as the Edmonton Eskimos' quarterback, he did, after all, pass a football more than 8,000 yards and lead the team to two Grey Cups.

Getty -- who died early yesterday in an Edmonton nursing home at 82 -- switched to politics at the suggestion of another former Eskimo, Peter Lougheed. The patrician Lougheed may not have been much of a professional athlete compared to Getty, playing two years as an undistinguished defensive back starting in 1950, but he was a far bigger star in politics.

With Getty at his side, Lougheed became an Opposition MLA in 1967 and Alberta’s first Progressive Conservative premier in 1971.

Getty served premier Lougheed as intergovernmental affairs minister and energy minister, then stepped out of politics, wisely, in 1979. Not long after that, in the summer of 1981, a recession accompanied by plummeting oil prices hit Alberta, resulting in a situation not unlike the province's current economic plight.

Lougheed prudently stepped aside in 1985, in time to be remembered forever as Alberta's Saint Peter. Getty was tempted once more into the breach, that same year. It was a fateful decision, because whatever timing magic he possessed on the gridiron seemed to desert him, creating the opportunity for the neoliberal takeover that scars Alberta and Canada to this day.

Like most political leaders who encounter an unexpected economic downturn on their watch, Getty wavered between the instinct for unproductive austerity that runs to deep in our Calvinist-influenced culture and the desire to stimulate the economy to keep things ticking along.

As such, his record is mixed, and continues to be controversial.

Nevertheless, as the CBC pointed out in a workmanlike unbylined obituary yesterday, deficit and debt were inevitable if the province was to stay above water in circumstances that were beyond the control of the government. Spending was certainly the right way to respond from an economic standpoint. But as the government's leader, it was the Conservative premier who bore the brunt of the attacks on the province’s burgeoning debt, which at one point edged toward $20 billion, from the surging far right.

Royalty revenues dropped by about half in 1986 -- and, remember, at close to 10 per cent they were considerably higher then than they are now. Nevertheless, the PCs won a comfortable majority that year.

"Supporters contend Getty was unfairly blamed for factors that were out of his control," the CBC's unidentified obituary writer dryly observed. Today we can pick at Getty’s record with justice on a variety of points, but on the whole the supporters were right about this.

For Getty, a Conservative, it must have felt as if he were being sacked by his own teammates!

The Conservatives won again in 1989, but Getty lost his own seat in Edmonton to a Liberal, Percy Wickman. A loyal PC trooper stepped aside, and the premier returned a few months later in a by-election in Stettler, in those days a safe seat for the Tories.

Alberta's Liberals, under leader Laurence Decore, now fiercely attacked Getty from the right. If he hadn't quit in 1992, chances are good the Liberals -- who were then really just another species of conservative -- could have won. Ralph Klein, the former Liberal mayor of Calgary, emerged as a contender for the Tory leadership and attacked Getty's record from even further to the right.

It was not so obvious then as it is now, but this was part of a neoliberal-inspired push for hard austerian, market-fundamentalist policies that had been in preparation throughout the democratic West since at least the early 1960s.

Alberta was to be its Canadian beachhead, in Edmonton under Klein the Destroyer, and in Ottawa under the irritating Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party of Canada. Under the guise of "uniting the right," that party would eventually execute a hostile reverse takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, an event that led to the country's bleak decade under Stephen Harper.

With Klein, an opportunist willing to jump on the neoliberal bandwagon because that's the way the wind was blowing, as his successor, Getty was arguably the last "Red Tory" to run Alberta -- unless you're one of those who see Rachel Notley, the NDP premier elected in May 2015, in that light.

As such, when we assess Getty's record, we need to remember a couple of things.

First, if oil prices had stayed high, or recovered sufficiently during his leadership, he would today be as revered as Lougheed. He certainly wouldn't have been remembered for failures, like his honourable role in securing the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord only to see it sabotaged by Manning and his nascent Canadian Tea Partiers.

Second, although Getty's record is not unblemished from a progressive perspective, attacks on many of the policies for which he is most fiercely pilloried -- among them deficit, debt and the willingness to intervene in the economy -- were the right thing to do in the circumstances, even if he didn't go far enough. Plus, he gave us Family Day.

Getty's record as interpreted by the still-powerful neoliberal propaganda machine is subject to as much mythmaking and distortion as that of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his National Energy Program, a memory from the same era. As it will Trudeau, history will judge Getty more kindly.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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