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When then was 'Now!' Marking the day Peter Lougheed moved Alberta dramatically to the left

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Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta, J4488.13 via Government of Alberta/flickr

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Today is the 45th anniversary of Peter Lougheed's historic election victory in 1971, which brought the Progressive Conservative Party to power with a comfortable majority, where it more or less remained with the general approval of Albertans until May 5, 2015.

Campaigning using the simple slogan "Now!," Lougheed smashed 36 years of hegemonic rule by the Social Credit party, which had snatched away the reins of government in a similarly sweeping upheaval in 1935 from the United Farmers of Alberta, which in turn had ruled for the previous 14 years until the coming of the Great Depression.

Since both the victorious PCs and the defeated Social Crediters were conservative governments when power changed hands in 1971, this understandably gave rise to a pervasive myth that every generation or so a cataclysmic electoral upheaval saw the Alberta government seized by an new government to the right of the old one.

This claim was repeated as indisputable fact with metronomic regularity by the gutter press in the days not so long ago when the capable market fundamentalist Danielle Smith led the "upstart" Wildrose Party and seemed poised to knock off the long-in-the-tooth Tories under any of Ed Stelmach, or Alison Redford, or Dave Hancock.

And -- who knows? -- perhaps if the convincing banker Jim Prentice hadn't come along to lead the Tories and Smith hadn't received a conspiratorial shove from Preston Manning and the back-room boys his eponymous Manning Centre represents, she would have succeeded. In the event, she instead agreed to help "unite the right" under Prentice, setting the stage for what happened next.

But if she had succeeded at that point, it would have been a change from the historical pattern in Alberta, not another example of it. Because, as has been argued in this space before, the periodic revolutions in Alberta (and it is a bit of an exaggeration to describe them that way, except perhaps in the case of Social Credit) have always arrived from the left.

At the time the United Farmers formed government in 1921, they were certainly to the left of the Liberals, who had become Alberta's first provincial government in 1905 when Wilfrid Laurier was still comfortably ensconced in Ottawa as Canada's Liberal prime minister.

Social Credit was a radical party, arguably if not clearly on the left on economic policy, when it seized power under the revolutionary William Aberhart in 1935 -- although it would be fair to say it also exhibited many characteristics of the Fascist movement rising in Europe in that same troubled era.

By 1971, however, after Aberhart's death in 1943 left it in the hands of Manning's father Ernest, Social Credit had become an extremely conservative political organization. So when Lougheed's Tories swept them out of power, that change too came in from the left.

Nowadays we forget just how radical Lougheed was on the questions of resource development and ownership, not just compared to the elder Manning's Social Credit government, but to the extreme market fundamentalists who now dominate the conservative movement in North America.

As Andrew Nikoforuk reminded us in a 2012 commentary on Lougheed's career, the premier elected in 1971 was very different from "the current libertarian 'strip it and ship it' crowd" that dominates both the PCs and the Wildrose Party. "He offered a farsighted vision that was both progressive and altogether conservative," Nikoforuk wrote.

The success in 2015 of the NDP under Rachel Notley speaks for itself in terms of more change coming from the left, this time led by a politician with careful instincts supported by an electorate that chose a party which, judged on its actions if not its historical rhetoric, was in favour of change but likely to be cautious about how to implement it.

In this regard, at least, the 2015 election was not a "fluke," as the province's conservative parties have claimed repeatedly and bitterly, but fits comfortably within Alberta's historical pattern.

Notley's NDP, of course, has had the bad luck to be elected at the beginning of a severe international economic disruption that deeply impacts the province's principal industry, for which it will inevitably if unjustly wear some of the blame. So it could well come to pass that in 2019 it will suffer a fate not unlike that of the United Farmers in 1935.

Then again -- since, notwithstanding the Opposition parties' and their media echo chamber's overheated rhetoric, what we are going through now is nothing like the Great Depression -- perhaps not. Despite strong opinions on both sides, we’ll have to watch a little more history to see how this unfolds.

But if Alberta does move back to the right at the polls in 2019, it will be a change from the traditional historical pattern in this province, not a return to it.

And it is hard to imagine that any of today's right-wing Alberta political parties -- infected, as they are, with the self-reinforcing ideological extremism that is destroying the U.S. Republican Party before our very eyes -- would have much sympathy with Lougheed's program, or indeed Lougheed himself.

After all, the approach he advocated called for recognition that we are all co-owners of a finite resource who should act accordingly. So, he argued, we should demand to be paid our fair share, save for a rainy day, add value here in Alberta not in Texas or New Brunswick, build only one project at a time, and employ a competent civil service capable of, as we would say today, building social license for the development of our jointly owned resource.

After additional landslide victories in 1975, 1979 and 1982, and Lougheed gracefully retired in 1985, leaving the inevitable decline of the party to others. He died on Sept. 13, 2012.

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

Photo: Government of Alberta/flickr

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