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the west wants change.

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The West wants change

The Ottawa Citizen
Tue 13 Jun 2006
Page Name: Editorial
Column: Andrew Cohen

CALGARY – In the high summer of 1971, there was a historic election in the province of Alberta. The Social Credit party had been in power since 1935 and was seen as the Natural Governing Party. But something was going on here.

The formidable Ernest Manning had resigned as premier in 1968, giving way to Harry Strom. It was an orderly, bloodless succession that seemed to assure the government’s re-election. Mr. Manning had been premier from 1944 to 1968, offering what historian John J. Barr calls “a cautious financial conservatism and a cautious social reformism” that led him to oppose the universal healthcare program introduced by Lester Pearson in the mid-1960s.

The Conservatives, led by a rugged lawyer named Peter Lougheed, didn’t seem much of a threat. Although he had been elected to his seat in the legislature in 1967 with the largest majority of any candidate, he was joined by only five other Conservatives.

Yet the earth opened in Alberta in the election of 1971. Mr. Lougheed promised a regime of change that a tired government of 36 years could not match. He was articulate, intelligent and energetic. The Conservatives said the Socreds had had their day. Albertans gave Mr. Lougheed 49 of 75 seats.

That was 35 years ago. The Conservatives have been in power in Alberta now almost as long as the Socreds had been then. But this time it is the Conservatives who are tired, divided over their leadership and direction and pressed by a spirited opposition led by a popular leader.

Are we on the cusp of a generational watershed here? Could history repeat itself in Alberta?

Maybe. It depends on the depth of the public’s desire for change, the appeal of a new Conservative leader, and how the Liberals position themselves in the new political firmament.

Mr. Lougheed was the nemesis of eastern Canada and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom he battled over the constitution and energy. But when he left in 1985, Mr. Lougheed was widely respected as an honourable advocate of his province’s interests. In leadership, it has been downhill ever since for Alberta.

Mr. Lougheed was succeeded by the feckless Don Getty, who showed he did not have stature of his predecessor in the constitutional negotiations at Meech Lake in 1987. Mr. Getty was followed by Ralph Klein, who represents the descent of politics. He is vain, vulgar, mercurial and petulant. His response to the province’s budgetary surplus was to issue every Albertan a cheque for $400. It is said that Mr. Lougheed thinks Mr. Klein is an embarrassment, and won’t be sorry to see him go this autumn.

The favourite to succeed Mr. Klein is Jim Dinning, the former provincial treasurer who has been out of politics for years. Mr. Dinning would bring experience and credibility to the job, but it won’t be enough to save the Conservatives if Albertans are shopping for something else, as they were in 1971.

At one time this province worried about having too little money: Now it worries about having too much. Managing oil revenues, balancing competing claims on the public purse, re-positioning Alberta in Confederation, dousing the persistent brushfires of alienation — these will be the challenges facing the new premier of one the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world.

Everyone knows Alberta is surging. Developers are throwing up office towers and building subdivisions, creating suburbs in search of a city. The price of the average house in Calgary is said to be rising by $500 a day. Calgary hums with a vitality unimaginable to cities of similar size and means.

Yet for a province awash in wealth, why are hospitals still crowded, why are neighbourhoods without schools, why are social services uneven, why is the environment an afterthought? Why was homelessness up 49 per cent in Calgary between 2002 and 2004?

A column in Avenue, an impressive, glossy magazine in Calgary, dreams of the city as the next Florence. There are no great cathedrals here, of course, but the idea that money can create something grand and enduring on the Prairie is worthy.

The Liberals see an opening. In Kevin Taft, they have a smart, aggressive leader, a former entrepreneur and policy analyst who has written widely on social and political issues. Like Mr. Lougheed in 1967, he won more votes in his last election in 2004 than any other candidate in the province; he also doubled the party’s seats in the legislature to 16 of 83, elected three representatives in Calgary and is reducing the party’s debt.

The Liberals, who gathered on the weekend to talk about their vision of Alberta, want a broad, open, progressive province, an exemplar on the environment and an innovator of social programs. They want this to be an influential, respected player in Canada, not a small, resentful one, and they appear to be striking a chord with a changing electorate.

An election is expected here within two years. The man to watch is Kevin Taft.

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University.

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