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September 21, 2012
CALGARY, AB, Sep. 21, 2012/ Troy Media/ – The astonishing outpouring of grief, respect and admiration for deceased Alberta premier Peter Lougheed might at first appear odd for a man who was – after all – just a premier, and never a federal politician; someone who retired in 1985, years before many of today’s adult Canadians were even born.
Yet, it is a tribute to someone who not only reshaped a backwater prairie province into a modern state but also made a mark on the national political scene as a champion for one of those long-overlooked ‘prairie provinces.’ Like all westerners, Albertans were underdogs, largely taken for granted by an arrogant prime minister. Lougheed served notice that they would not be pushed around, and, as a result, his name has become synonymous with the province’s pride and prosperity.
Those reasons might explain why Albertans love him, but they don’t fully explain why he has earned the respect of Canadians from sea to sea to sea. Answering that question will tell you a great deal more about leadership than it does about one remarkable politician. It is instructive for all Canadians to pause and ask themselves what qualities this man had that motivated one prominent Canadian think tank to name him greatest premier in the past 40 years. Here are some of the key ones:
Vision: Peter Lougheed lived in a province that had shown great potential for many years, because of its oil and gas reserves, but which had yet to achieve that greatness. Lougheed had a plan to change all that, and he also had very clear ideas about how the province should use the wealth it was about to acquire. Instead of heady spending, he was thinking about legacy, through modern legislation that enshrined personal rights, the establishment of parks to protect Alberta’s unique natural legacy and a heritage fund, to act as a bankroll for future generations.
Courage: Lougheed was up against a tough, arrogant and aloof prime minister in Pierre Trudeau, who showed little empathy for the dreams and aspirations of westerners. The wealth of Alberta was to be mined to help the feds balance their budget, and if it meant Alberta’s dreams would have to be put on hold, then that was an acceptable price to pay. Lougheed went toe-to-toe with his adversary, fighting the imposition of an export tax on oil, and later, a petroleum and gas revenue tax. It was a big gamble, but Lougheed triumphed. There is no question that Alberta would not be the leading province it is today if the Lougheed team had not been prepared to take on the seemingly untouchable feds. He went on to lead the Gang of Eight premiers opposed to Trudeau’s repatriation package, and eventually forced the prime minister to agree to a constitutional amendment formula that treated all provinces equally.
Heart: There are countless personal stories from people in this province who experienced Lougheed’s generosity and empathy first-hand. He also showed it at the macro level, establishing the ground work for the critical rights laws the province enjoys, implementing modern labour laws and establishing such basic social programs as AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped). He cared about the province and its people.
Brains: Pierre Trudeau, Lougheed’s nemesis, is considered by many to be one of the smartest politicians this country has ever seen. Fortunately for Alberta, so was Lougheed. He could think strategically and match the feds move-for-move. The result was Trudeau had no choice but to respect his able opponent. It is impossible to calculate the full impact of Lougheed’s power, but it surely worked to Alberta’s advantage.
Passion: A decade ago, when I arrived in Calgary as the editorial pages editor of the local newspaper, I found myself summoned one day to have lunch with the Great One. The reason? He knew the newspaper carried influence in the community and beyond, and he wanted to probe my views on such matters as energy policy, federal/provincial relations and fiscal and social responsibility. Why did he still care? It’s a question that barely needs to be asked.
The many tributes written in the days since his death last week fill out the picture. But the qualities cited above are instructive to all Canadians in their search for politicians fit to take this country forward.
We live in an age when partisan politics has become cynical and manipulative; in which social science parses voter behaviour and pushes the requisite buttons to achieve the desired outcome. In this day, it is hard to imagine that there is even such a thing as a politician who just wants to do the right thing. It makes you wonder whether the circumstances of 2012 even allow for a modern day Peter Lougheed.
And yet the need is as urgent as ever. The people of every city, every province – the country itself – have the right to ask for as much from their leaders as Lougheed gave to Alberta.
Who will be the next generation of great leaders? Will they listen to the lessons of the great people whose footsteps they aspire to follow? And, even if they do, will today’s hyper-tuned political machines allow them the opportunity, or weed them out as ‘unelectable’?
These are the questions that Canadians who care about what this country will look like a generation from now should be asking.
Doug Firby is Editor-in-chief of Troy Media, and national affairs columnist.
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