Today, I am in Calgary to celebrate the life of an extraordinary Albertan and an extraordinary Canadian. Sadly, I never got to know the former Alberta Premier, although I did meet him briefly, twice. We met once in a Receiving Line and had a short conversation at the 2003 Federal PC Leadership Convention. He was warm and engaging and happy to pass on some wisdom to a rookie MLA.
Accordingly, most of my Lougheed admiration comes from books, media reports and accounts from those who knew, and served with, him. It is well known that he was elected as an MLA in 1967 and served as Alberta Premier from 1971-1985. What is often overlooked is that he was also a distinguished practicing lawyer, both before and after his political career.
As both lawyer and politician he applied his considerable skill with honour and dignity. It appears impossible to find anyone who will utter an unkind word about him. Even his political opponents speak of him highly and with great regard. He was a great listener, who preferred compromise over confrontation; yet he would not shy from a fight when warranted.
Peter Lougheed was not only a highly skilled debater; he was a highly respectful debater. To Lougheed, politics was about ideas not personalities. He would passionately defend or advance an idea without attacking his opponent. As a result, his adversaries never felt belittled. But more importantly, the quality of debate was much higher. Ideas mattered, spin did not.
He was Premier during a more gentile era of politics. Although I understand cameras entered the Alberta Assembly in 1972, he held office long before the era of the 24 hour news networks. There was no internet; people got their news either from newspapers or the evening news and stories were prepared with care not haste. Today, we live in the era of the seven second soundbite and reaction to the story becomes the next story.
But fulsome debate does not lend itself to the seven second soundbite; unfortunately, attack politics do. Although press officers existed in Lougheed’s era, communication experts were supplemental to, not a replacement for, policy analysts. It was policy, not spin, that interested Premier Lougheed.
Clearly, his greatest accomplishments were his defense of provincial rights during the misguided National Energy Program of 1980 and the Constitutional Patriation of 1982. Even one of his greatest adversaries during these battles, Pierre Trudeau, apparently respected him both as an advocate and as an individual.
These were highly complicated and equally important files. As he stuck to the issues, not the personalities, he was able to advance matters respectfully, while defending Alberta’s interest. In the process he re-wrote Alberta’s place in the patriated confederation.
In the current era of negative politics, the Lougheed Legacy is a refreshing reminder of a political (and legal) era when substantive debate mattered. When genuine debate trumped reliance on talking points and when fixing a problem was more important than spin and finding someone else to blame.
He considered himself a Canadian first, but he was a proud Albertan, with the vision and the skill to protect and advance our great province. He was a true statesman.
As a lasting legacy, modern politicians should study his style and replicate his methods. It would improve our democracy.