On August 30, 1971, the Progressive Conservative Party led by 43-year old Calgary lawyer Peter Lougheed were rocketed into government when they unseated the 36-year old Social Credit government led by 57-year old Harry Strom.
It was a shift that, until recently, had happened only once every generation in Alberta: a change in government.
Lougheed’s election represented a generational shift, with the voting age dropping from 21 to 18 years old for the first time, and an urban shift, with a handful of new urban districts added to the electoral map dislodging the disproportionate rural majority that had dominated Alberta’s elections until that point.
As Ernest Manning’s successor, Strom inherited an aging dynasty that had governed Alberta since 1935. While he appeared open to new ideas, modernizing the long-in-the-tooth Socred government was a tall order.
In contrast, Lougheed embodied new ideas of a younger Alberta – or at least that’s what the mythology of that election tells us. His campaign was made for TV and the telegenic Lougheed could be frequently seen “main streeting” and running from door to door while canvassing for his party’s candidates.
Social Credit tried to revitalize their look, with go-go girls and live bands at their election rallies, but once voters decided that change was needed it was impossible for Strom to turn that around. And the iconic NOW! slogan of Lougheed’s campaign tapped into that feeling.
The Lougheed PCs were not alone. They had the financial backing of corporate Calgary, including generous support from the Mannix Corporation, which employed Lougheed before he was first elected to the Legislature in 1967.
The PCs won with 49 seats and 46.4 per cent of the popular vote, sweeping out Social Credit, which, with 25 seats and 41.1 per cent of the vote formed the Official Opposition for the first time. While the Social Credit Party would wither in the opposition benches and eventually shrink into a 4 MLA rump that would survive until the early 1980s, Lougheed’s first victory transformed Alberta politics for the next five decades.
The PCs would form commanding majorities until their defeat to Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party in 2015.
Also elected in 1971 was NDP leader Grant Notley, who would represent the northern rural district of Spirit River-Fairview until 1984. The NDP narrowly missed out electing a few other MLAs in this election, and Notley would remain the party’s only MLA – and the only social democratic voice in the Legislature – until Ray Martin was elected in Edmonton-Norwood in 1982.
The Alberta Liberal Party, which had formed Official Opposition before Lougheed’s PCs earned the spot in 1967, were wiped off the political map and would remain in the political wilderness until 1986.
In politics timing is everything, and Lougheed lucked out. Massive windfalls in oil and gas revenues led to overflowing government coffers, allowing the PC government to make major investments in public infrastructure like hospitals, schools, universities and colleges. The Lougheed PCs founded the The Banff Centre, the Kananaskis Country recreation area, and even bought an airline – Pacific Western Airlines.
Lougheed’s government introduced a Bill of Rights, created the Legislature Hansard, and dissolved the notorious Alberta Eugenics Board.
The difference between Lougheed and some of his successors in Alberta’s Conservative dynasty was his belief that government had a positive role to play in society (a Reform Party Member of Parliament named Jason Kenney once criticized Lougheed’s legacy of “neo-Stalinist make-work projects.”)
Lougheed believed Alberta should behave like an owner of our oil and gas resources and that the government should collect its fair share of revenues. Royalty revenues were much higher than today, peaking at 40 per cent during his time as Premier. The oil companies complained but Lougheed was persistent.
“This is a sale of a depleting resource that’s owned by the people. Once a barrel of oil goes down the pipeline it’s gone forever. It’s like a farmer selling off his topsoil,” Lougheed once said.
Lougheed’s government also negotiated landmark financial investments from the federal government and the Ontario government in the oil sands that kickstarted development of the deposits when private investors would not take the risk. These government investments in Alberta’s oil industry likely helped save companies like Suncor when the international price of oil plummeted in the 1980s.
Relations between Lougheed’s government and Ottawa soured following the introduction of the National Energy Program, creating a political wedge that Conservative leaders have continued to crank ever since. But he always made sure he was seen as advocating for Alberta in a strong Canada and was a key player during the Constitution-making negotiations of the early 1980s.
The Heritage Savings Trust Fund is one of Lougheed’s biggest legacies. Today the trust fund is seen as a visionary move to save money for future generations of Albertans, which it is in a way, but it was also a result of a government that at one point literally had more money that it knew what to do with.
Lougheed commanded the loyalty of his cabinet, caucus and party – which built a political dynasty that would span four decades but also gave him a bit of an autocratic reputation.
PC MLAs would be required to share frequent local membership and fundraising updates with the Premier’s Office and Lougheed was known to make monthly calls with local PC Party association presidents in order to create a system of accountability with his local leaders. And there have also been stories that Lougheed kept undated and signed letters of resignation from his cabinet ministers in order to avoid having to fire anyone who became a political liability.
There is a Camelot-like mythology to Lougheed’s time in office. He towers over Alberta politics in ways that more recently popular leaders like Ralph Klein do not. While Klein was a populist, Lougheed was a builder. The oil money sure helped, but so did having a vision for making this province a better place.
Day Light Saving Time Referendum
Nothing is new under the prairie sun. In 1971, Albertans voted to adopt Daylight Saving Time in a province-wide referendum after voting against DST in a 1967 referendum. This October 2021, Albertans will vote whether to abandon the time change and permanently adopt Daylight Saving Time.