Peter Lougheed was the 10th premier of Alberta, but the first to kick off the 40-year Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty.
Lougheed’s electoral victory in 1971 was no small feat. The Social Credit party was enjoying a dynasty of its own, with 36 years of uninterrupted power, and few pundits predicted a Conservative victory.
The Conservatives had been shut out of the legislature in the 1963 election.
“I have no illusions. It’s a long tough road,” Lougheed told the Calgary Herald after winning the Conservative leadership in 1965. He added: “Things are beginning to stir, to happen in this province. The voters are ready to make a move.”
Under Lougheed’s stewardship, the party managed to get a foothold of six seats in the 1967 election.
During the 1971 campaign, the Conservatives painted themselves as a younger, urban, more imaginative and energetic alternative to the Socreds, who clung heavily to their rural farming roots for support. Key Conservative campaign slogans were “Time for a change,” and “Now!”
With a law degree from the University of Alberta and MBA from Harvard, Lougheed steamrolled into office in 1971 with 49 of 75 seats, capturing all 16 Edmonton seats and nine of 13 Calgary ridings.
Political analysts generally agreed that Lougheed benefitted from the expanded role of television coverage and a TV-focused ad campaign.
The Socreds, who had replaced the popular Ernest Manning with the low-key Harry Strom as leader in 1968, relied more heavily on newspaper and radio ads to get their message out.
As premier, Lougheed distinguished himself by engaging in ongoing energy and constitutional wars with Ottawa, becoming the nemesis of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau while crusading for stronger provincial roles in national decision-making.
When the Trudeau government announced the National Energy Program in October of 1980, thereby increasing Ottawa’s revenue take and role in energy development, Lougheed retaliated by putting proposed new oilsands plants on hold and ordering oil production cutbacks. The battle continued until 1982, when Lougheed and Trudeau finally reached a revenue-sharing agreement.
Lougheed was also one of the leading proponents of the 1982 constitutional amending formula, which ensured provinces have a significant role in changes.
On the home front, Lougheed spearheaded the creation of the province’s Heritage Savings Trust Fund “nest egg,” describing the fund as a savings account to offset future slumps in resource revenues. To this day, critics insist Conservative governments have failed to set aside sufficient energy revenues in boom times to adequately protect the province during economic downturns.
Two other highlights of the Lougheed years included the creation of Kananaskis Country west of Calgary as a monster-sized recreational area, and the earmarking of a $300-million endowment to promote medical research.
Lougheed led the Conservatives to four consecutive election victories, each one with increasingly larger majorities, the last one in 1982 taking 75 of 79 seats. Lougheed rejected pressure to run for the leadership of the federal Conservatives, a contest that was eventually won in 1983 by Brian Mulroney.
Lougheed announced his retirement as premier in June 1985, and resigned in February 1986. The Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country was later named after him, and an acute care hospital in Calgary is named the Peter Lougheed Centre.
If Peter Lougheed’s tenure as premier could loosely be called the “Mr. Boom” years, successor Don Getty’s reign as Conservative leader could aptly be characterized as the “Mr. Bust” period.
Getty walked into office as the province was being walloped by an economic slowdown and huge downturn in energy prices. After Getty won the Conservative leadership in 1985, the government had a deficit of over $2 billion his first year in office, and over $3 billion the second year, as energy revenues plummeted by $3 billion.
This kind of red ink was hard to swallow for many in cash-rich Alberta.
And Getty and his ministers spent much of his two terms as premier defending cuts in social spending while approving large injections of government funding to stimulate and backstop various economic projects, many of them losing enterprises, such as Calgary-based Novatel technology company and the Gainers meatpacking plant in Edmonton.
By the time Getty departed at the end of 1992, government debt had climbed past $11 billion, leaving critics – including successor Ralph Klein – to characterize the Getty era as being ridden with excessive, even wasteful, spending. Later Getty and several political analysts argued the Getty government’s handling of finances was treated unfairly, and stringent measures were in fact taken to reel in spending.
Prior to politics, Getty played 10 seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos as a quarterback. He was approached by Lougheed, also an Eskimo veteran, to run for the Conservatives and won his seat in Strathcona West in 1967. He served as energy minister and intergovernmental affairs minister under Lougheed, before taking a hiatus from politics.
In Getty's first election as leader in 1986, the Conservatives took a respectable 61 of 83 legislature seats.
When the Principal Group financial empire went into bankruptcy in 1987, more than 67,000 investors were faced with losing their life savings, some $457 million in total. At the height of the debacle, Getty was photographed golfing on an Edmonton course. One of his office assistants said the premier was “working out of the office,” leaving a taint of indifference that seemed to stick.
Heading into the 1989 election, Getty tried to turn the government agenda toward family values initiatives, something that critics noted coincided with his son Dale’s highly public arrest on cocaine charges. Getty came under criticism from his own party members for announcing a series of expensive campaign promises for things like mortgage assistance, highway paving and money to fight alcohol and drug abuse.
The campaign got off to a shaky start on Day 1 when Getty announced the election and then commented on a newspaper columnist’s suggestion the premier didn’t always wear a seat belt when driving. “I maybe whack my kids, beat my wife, but I’ve never abused a seat belt,” Getty told reporters. Following an outcry, Getty was forced to apologize.
Getty lost his Edmonton Whitemud riding in the election. A Conservative MLA in Stettler stepped aside so Getty could run in a byelection, which he won handily but faced ongoing allegations of providing excessive government largesse to the area.
Perhaps one of Getty’s most enduring legacies was creation of the Family Day holiday on the third Monday each February. In 1990, Alberta became the only province to have a statutory holiday in February, but others have since followed.
Getty, following Lougheed's lead, was a significant player on the national stage. A booster of the Triple E Senate concept for reforming the upper chamber, Getty organized the country’s first election to fill a vacant senate seat. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney eventually agreed to have election winner Stan Waters fill a Senate seat.
As well, Getty was a leader among the premiers during negotiations for a free-trade agreement and in promoting the failed Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Accord constitutional agreements.
He signed the first agreement in Canada to establish self-government for Metis people, turning over control of 1.25 million acres of land to eight Metis settlements.
Getty was made an honourary chief by the Whitefish Lake Band in 1990, and the Metis Nation of Alberta awarded him the Order of the Sash a year later.
Ralph Klein worked in public relations and then as a TV reporter before entering politics.
Few took him seriously – including his employers at CFCN TV – when he announced in 1980 he was running for mayor of Calgary. But he was the surprise victor, and sailed successfully through two more mayoral campaigns before Premier Don Getty asked him to run provincially under the Conservative banner in 1989.
After Klein won his Calgary Elbow seat, Getty rewarded him with a cabinet post, making him environment minister. Employing the same kind of outspoken, streetfighter political style he relied on as mayor, Klein was famously caught on camera giving a protester the finger at a 1990 meeting about a controversial pulp mill project.
When Getty announced retirement in 1992, Klein threw his hat in the leadership race, gaining the backing of more Tory MLAs than any other candidate. He narrowly lost to Nancy Betkowski in the first ballot, but won the leadership in the second ballot by a respectable margin.
Klein immediately staked out financial restructuring as a key priority, angering some in the Getty camp by suggesting government spending had been excessive or even wasteful. He launched a campaign to eliminate provincial deficits, backed by a government task force report that – with considerable flourish – likened Alberta’s $22-billion debt and annual spending to a runaway truck headed toward a brick wall.
Across-the-board spending cuts to social programs included the elimination of kindergarten, reductions in hospital beds and civil service layoffs. Accompanied by big hikes to user fees and health care premiums, “Ralph-onomics” became a model for some other conservative-minded governments to follow.
By February 1995, the Klein government delivered a balanced budget two years earlier than projected. Once the deficit dragon was slain, Klein set elimination of the accumulated provincial debt as the next target, something most other governments could only dream about without the benefit of energy revenue windfalls.
By mid-2004, Klein was ready to claim victory on the debt front as well.
“Well today I’m very, very proud to announce that Alberta has slain its debt,” Klein announced in July, when it was inevitable the remaining $3 billion in debt would be paid off by the end of the budget year.
Klein’s prescription of tough budget medicine, mixed with a series of largely unsuccessful attempts to increase the role of the private sector in health care, laid the groundwork for four consecutive Conservative majorities with him at the helm. “Welcome to Ralph’s world,” he told supporters after winning 74 of 83 seats in the 2001 campaign.
But not everything was rosy. In December 2001 Klein admitted publicly he had a drinking problem that needed to be controlled. That was shortly after he paid a surprise night visit to an Edmonton men’s shelter, where he argued with and threw money at residents.
In January 2006, a mailout with Klein’s signature was sent to every Albertan, accompanied by a $400 “prosperity cheque,” a move that triggered mixed reviews by those who still remembered the sting of earlier government cutbacks.
Later that year, the premier had to apologize for throwing an opposition health policy booklet at a 17-year-old legislature page.
Shortly after, Klein was stung when party delegates gave him a chilly 55 per cent support in a leadership review. In September 2006, Klein confirmed he intended to step down as premier, even though he indicated earlier he would have liked to have remained in the job about a year longer.
Following retirement, rumours of health problems persisted about the time Klein received the Alberta Order of Excellence award at a ceremony in October 2010. Six months later, it was confirmed he suffered from dementia, having difficulty with his memory and speech.
The grandson of Ukrainian immigrants, Ed Stelmach is the first Alberta premier of Ukrainian descent.
He speaks fluent Ukrainian and spent most of his life prior to politics as a farmer. Stelmach and wife Marie still live on the homestead founded by his grandparents in Lamont County.
Prior to jumping into provincial politics, Stelmach was a school trustee and member of several health boards. He won a council seat in Lamont County in 1986, and was appointed reeve a year later, a position he held until he was elected MLA in the Vegreville-Viking riding in the 1993 provincial election.
As a backbencher, Stelmach was a member of a group of MLAs called the Deep Six. Their name came from their support for deep and swift spending cuts, and from their physical location deep in the backbenches of the legislature. Five of the six ended up being appointed to cabinet by Premier Ralph Klein, but Stelmach was the only one to also take the top job.
Stelmach held four cabinet posts, including agriculture, infrastructure, transportation and international and intergovernmental relations.
Stelmach, whose low-key political style later earned him the nickname of "Steady Eddie," was a sleeper candidate in the 2006 leadership race to replace Klein. Much of the attention focused on the battle between Jim Dinning, a former provincial treasurer who had taken a hiatus from politics, and Ted Morton, a social conservative.
After placing third in the first round of voting, Stelmach emerged as the winner after a second ballot a week later when three candidates who dropped out endorsed him. He appointed to cabinet all the party leadership contenders who supported him in the final ballot.
With Stelmach as premier, the Conservatives won a landslide victory in the March, 2008 provincial election, increasing the party’s seat count by 10, taking 72 of 81 seats.
In October of 2007, Stelmach delivered a 19-minute televised state-of-the-province address, his first official response to a government-commissioned report that called for energy companies to pay $2 billion more annually in royalties. He flagged that royalty increases were coming, and days later they were announced.
That triggered a two-year battle with the energy industry and heightened alienation of the Stelmach government in Calgary and the oil patch By March 2010, Stelmach waved the white flag, unveiling major changes to royalty rules that virtually turned the clock back to the framework in place prior to the 2007 increases.
Also on the energy front, Stelmach faced growing opposition to oilsands development from environmental groups, which triggered concerns about the sale of oilsands product to the U.S., the major customer. In January 2008, Stelmach told a U.S. finance committee it was a “myth” that oilsands production came at too big an environmental price, and warned that U.S. objections to Alberta’s oilsands could jeopardize access to oil.
In the spring of 2009 with economy on the downturn, the Stelmach government introduced a budget with a record $4.7 billion deficit, the first deficit in 16 years. The budget forecasted deficits for the following three years as well.
Even with the worsening financial situation, Stelmach steadfastly clung to his “Deep Six” conservative roots, flatly ruling out tax increases.
"As long as I'm premier of this province, there will be no tax increases," he tells reporters after a cabinet meeting in Calgary. "No tax increases, period."
In October 2009 the fledgling socially conservative Wildrose Alliance Party won a seat in a Calgary byelection, a move some analysts said signaled the start of a shift in provincial politics. By the end of 2009, polls were suggesting the Alliance had more support than the Conservatives.
Stelmach shrugged off the survey results, noting the Conservatives sat even lower in the polls in 1992 at the end of Don Getty’s time as premier.
But more bad news was coming. In January 2010 his leadership suffered a significant blow when two Calgary members of his caucus – Heather Forsyth and Rob Anderson – crossed the floor to join the Wildrose. Guy Boutlier, a former Tory cabinet minister who temporarily became an independent MLA, also joined the Wildrose six months later.
In January 2011, Stelmach announced that after 25 years in public office, he wouldn’t seek re-election and would step down as Alberta premier.