Don Getty, premier who battled economic downturn much like today’s, among the last of Alberta’s Red Tory leaders

Posted on February 27, 2016, 2:05 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: Don Getty and Peter Lougheed, going places politically back in the day. Below: Mr. Getty again, and Mr. Lougheed , as professional football players with the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1950s, the former in an Eskimos photo, the latter in a shot snapped for the Edmonton Journal; Ralph Klein, another Alberta premier in a previous professional incarnation (source not known, grabbed from the Internet); and a typical overheated attack on Mr. Getty when he was premier, this one in the protoneoliberal Alberta Report magazine.

As most of us come to understand the hard way, timing is everything, and not just in in football and politics.

As a football player, Don Getty’s timing must have been pretty good. In a decade-long career as the Edmonton Eskimos’ quarterback that began in 1955, he did, after all, pass a football more than 8,000 yards and lead the team to two Grey Cups.

don-getty-footballMr. Getty – who died early yesterday in an Edmonton nursing home at 82 – switched to politics at the suggestion of another former Eskimo, Peter Lougheed. The patrician Mr. Lougheed may not have been much of a professional athlete compared to Mr. Getty, playing two years as an undistinguished defensive back starting in 1950, but he was a far bigger star in politics.

With Mr. Getty at his side, Mr. Lougheed became an Opposition MLA in 1967 and Alberta’s first Progressive Conservative premier in 1971.

Mr. Getty served premier Lougheed as intergovernmental affairs minister and energy minister, then stepped out of politics, wisely, in 1979. Not long after that, in the summer of 1981, a recession accompanied by plummeting oil prices hit Alberta, resulting in a situation not unlike the province’s current economic plight.

Mr. Lougheed prudently stepped aside in 1985, in time to be remembered forever as Alberta’s St. Peter. Mr. Getty was tempted once more into the breach, once more, that same year. It was a fateful decision, because whatever timing magic he possessed on the gridiron seemed to desert him, creating the opportunity for the neoliberal takeover that scars Alberta and Canada to this day.

Like most political leaders who encounter an unexpected economic downturn on their watch, Mr. Getty wavered between the instinct for unproductive austerity that runs to deep in our Calvinist-influenced culture and the desire to stimulate the economy to keep things ticking along.

LougheedAs such, his record is mixed, and continues to be controversial.

Nevertheless, as the CBC pointed out in a workmanlike unbylined obituary yesterday, deficit and debt were inevitable if the province was to stay above water in circumstances that were beyond the control of the government. Spending was certainly the right way to respond from an economic standpoint. But as the government’s leader, it was the Conservative premier who bore the brunt of the attacks on the province’s burgeoning debt, which at one point edged toward $20 billion, from the surging far right.

Royalty revenues dropped by about half in 1986 – and, remember, at close to 10 per cent they were considerably higher then than they are now. Nevertheless, the PCs won a comfortable majority that year.

“Supporters contend Getty was unfairly blamed for factors that were out of his control,” the CBC’s unidentified obituary writer dryly observed. Today we can pick at Mr. Getty’s record with justice on a variety of points, but on the whole the supporters were right about this.

For Mr. Getty, a Conservative, it must have felt as if he were being sacked by his own teammates!

KleinThe Conservatives won again in 1989, but Mr. Getty lost his own seat in Edmonton to a Liberal, Percy Wickman. A loyal PC trooper stepped aside, and the premier returned a few months later in a by-election in Stettler, in those days a safe seat for the Tories.

Alberta’s Liberals, under leader Laurence Decore, now fiercely attacked Mr. Getty from the right. If he hadn’t quit in 1992, chances are good the Liberals – who were then really just another species of conservative – could have won. Ralph Klein, the former Liberal mayor of Calgary, emerged as a contender for the Tory leadership and attacked Mr. Getty’s record from even further to the right.

It was not so obvious then as it is now, but this was part of a neoliberal-inspired push for hard austerian, market-fundamentalist policies that had been in preparation throughout the democratic West since at least the early 1960s.

Alberta was to be its Canadian beachhead, in Edmonton under Klein the Destroyer, and in Ottawa under the irritating Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party of Canada. Under the guise of “uniting the right,” that party would eventually execute a hostile reverse takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, an event that led to the country’s bleak decade under Stephen Harper.

alberta-report1With Mr. Klein, an opportunist willing to jump on the neoliberal bandwagon because that’s the way the wind was blowing, as his successor, Mr. Getty was arguably the last “Red Tory” to run Alberta – unless you’re one of those who see Rachel Notley, the NDP premier elected in May 2015, in that light.

As such, when we assess Mr. Getty’s record, we need to remember a couple of things.

First, if oil prices had stayed high, or recovered sufficiently during his leadership, he would today be as revered as Mr. Lougheed. He certainly wouldn’t have been remembered for failures, like his honourable role in securing the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord only to see it sabotaged by Mr. Manning and his nascent Canadian Tea Partiers.

Second, although Mr. Getty’s record is not unblemished from a progressive perspective, attacks on many of the policies for which he is most fiercely pilloried – among them deficit, debt and the willingness to intervene in the economy – were the right thing to do in the circumstances, even if he didn’t go far enough. Plus, he gave us Family Day.

Mr. Getty’s record as interpreted by the still-powerful neoliberal propaganda machine is subject to as much mythmaking and distortion as that of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his National Energy Program, a memory from the same era. As it will Mr. Trudeau, history will judge Mr. Getty more kindly.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

19 Comments to: Don Getty, premier who battled economic downturn much like today’s, among the last of Alberta’s Red Tory leaders

  1. Expat Albertan

    February 27th, 2016

    It’s amazing how far we’ve come, politically, both in Alberta and Canada. I still remember, as a student at U of A back in the mid-80’s, how Mr. Getty was seen as an austerity-loving tightfist, among students who were seeing tuition rise. Now, we’ve gone so far to the right that we can only see Don as a kindler, gentler form of conservative. It is to laugh (or cry).

    Reply
  2. Farmer B

    February 27th, 2016

    I will certainly agree that Don Getty was a victim of bad timing but not that he was the last red Tory, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford would be classified as a red Tory in my world. They started the deficit spending that has now ate up Ralph’s 17 billion dollar contingency fund.
    As for your belief in government stimulus lets look at Ontario. Their latest budget projects a balanced budget in 3 years on the operational side but when you include the capital side they will still add 28 billion to net debt over those 3 years. A whopping 176 million of net debt since they came to power in 2003. They are now selling off Energy Hydro One to try and raise some money. Interest payments on the debt are the third largest item in their budget, money that should go to program spending. Job opportunities in Ontario are improving but I would say this is due to the lower Canadian dollar and cheaper oil.
    As for Alberta my impression of our government is that they intend to spend with no plan of repayment. Alberta’s GDP was over 350 billion roughly and government spending 4 or 5 or 6 billion, which is 1 or 2% of that isn’t going to right the ship.
    The problem I have is with the carbon tax. Taxing the natural gas which we heat our homes with, a necessity in Canada, to me is wrong. I can’t see how if you give rebates to 60% of those paying the tax that it will change what we do. To me it is just an income redistribution plan and a way for the NDP to create a slush from which they can pick winners and losers in industry. No money goes against the debt. We need a sales tax not a carbon tax. We need a 5% sales tax, it is the fairest way to raise revenue. Wealthy spend more and therefore pay more tax, plus it is not a disinsentive to work harder and earn more money. We also need to compare our public sector wages to other provinces and bring ours on line. We spend more than any other province per capita, this has to change. Dave I am what you would call a neoliberal probably but I just consider myself a proud Albertan who is concerned about our collective future. Have a good day:-)

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      February 27th, 2016

      I agree, Farmer B, there’s a case to be made that Mr. Stelmach qualifies for the honourable title of Red Tory, but my judgment is that, while close, he doesn’t quite come up to the bar. It certainly wasn’t an instinctive reaction on his part, in my view, so much as a careful reading of the polls at strategic moments by his advisors. Still, we got some useful roads out of it, so, that said, I might be prepared to change my mind with some persuasion. He was certainly a fine person, regardless of what one makes of his policies. With Alison Redford, I have to disagree. She campaigned as a progressive, but ruled as a hard-right neoliberal, in my opinion. Classic Liberal Party behaviour, as it happens. DJC

      Reply
    • anon

      February 27th, 2016

      There is nothing fair about a sales tax – taking 5% away from somebody with $100,000 income does not bother them at all – they still have $95,000 left. For someone with a $20,000 income, the tax is a noticeable loss.

      Taxes need to be based on ability to pay, – sales and property taxes just hurt lower income people.

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        February 28th, 2016

        A sales tax is by definition a consumption tax. the more you consume because you can afford it he more you pay into the tax base. Therefore, those with the ability to consume more, because they have more money pay more. That is entirely fair.

        As for the poor, they do spend more money proportionally on staples than the rich. However, this can be easily compensated for through either a sales tax rebate on essentials, or tax exemptions on certain necessities. If need be a tax credit can built into the provincial income tax portion based on income.

        the facts are that a sales tax would add to the revenue side for the government to continue to provide essential services to Albertans. These are things like education, health care, and other public goods that low income Albertans depend upon.

        A sales tax is fair, and required.

        Reply
        • Northern Loon

          February 28th, 2016

          A sales tax rebate does not deal with the reality of never having enough pay to make ends meet. A once a year windfall (rebate), or even monthly rebates really does little to help when you are at the till and don’t have enough money now.

          And then there is the issue of the poor spending all of their money in Alberta whereas the wealthy spend and invest in other parts of the world so the wealthy pay even less sales proportionally.

          A sales tax is neither fair nor required, instead an appropriate progressive income tax without loopholes is what is fair and required as it attached to income and not spending.

          Reply
      • lungta

        February 28th, 2016

        reality is different
        my $400 car ive driven for 5 years pays $20
        my 100k neigbour who trades up every year
        pays $500 a year on 10k
        income under 20k a year and most of the gst paid is refunded quarterly
        so over 5 years my $20 to his $2500
        seems pretty fair to me

        Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      February 27th, 2016

      It’s a sticky situation here in Ontario, Farmer. Our real problem is that manufacturing has moved to China in the last 20 years. Only time will tell whether deficit spending is a good idea, but, believe me, austerity is no better (been through under Mike Harris and it didn’t help the economy at all). Sure one might end up with a balanced budget, but that’s fairly useless if it results in high unemployment and continued capital flight (and capital flees mainly because it gets better return somewhere else, not because taxes are low).

      But here’s the thing – since austerity generally doesn’t help the economy (in terms of creating jobs), there must be another reason neo-liberal conservatives push it. To my mind, it’s really a way to starve government services, all the better to sell them off to their friends in the private sector. I don’t believe conservatives (that is, the true movers and shakers in the movement) are truly concerned about balanced budgets for their own sake. If they were, they would have no problem raising taxes or cutting spending that affects things that are in their interest (roads and infrastructure being a good example).

      Reply
      • Farmer B

        February 28th, 2016

        Expat what I don’t understand is why we feel we have the right to essentially take away from future generations so we can live better today. None of the governments borrowing money today build repayment of debt into their budgets, only more spending, more taxes and more debt. Have you ever taken a loan that didn’t include principle repayment, I know I haven’t. During recessionary periods it makes sense for governments to run a deficit to maintain services but during the good times they should run a surplus and pay down previously accrued debt. Our failure to do this is short sighted and self centered. Future demographics point to a reduction in our labour force once the baby boomers retire this will download an even greater tax burden on future generations, something never addressed by existing governance. Have a good day:-).

        Reply
        • anon

          February 29th, 2016

          You have your basic economics about the importance of counter-cyclical government spending correct. What you are missing is the considerable productivity gains by industry which are no longer being captured for the public good using progressive corporate taxes.

          Most of the income no longer goes to individuals, it goes to the half dozen corporations that ‘own’ each sector. They have escaped taxation and that needs to be fixed.

          Reply
        • Expat Albertan

          February 29th, 2016

          Fair enough, Farmer, but the issue of deficits is as political as it is economic. To put it crudely, those with money have the political power to make sure that other people (with less money and political power) have more responsibility to pay back the deficit (and debt). That’s why you see conservatives calling for tax cuts, even though there are huge deficits, and the fiscal hits going to things like education and health care. I agree, debts ultimately need to be paid (but a nation’s debt is not the same is a person’s debt, since nation’s are responsible for their own money supply) – but the burden is not equally distributed and conservatives just amplify that problem, both at home and abroad.

          Reply
  3. ronmac

    February 27th, 2016

    I’m beginning to think God must be a Red Tory. With heaven rapidly filling up with NDPers (from the Tommy Douglas school) and other assorted do-gooders, maybe He/She is trying to add a little balance in the celestial political discourse.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      February 27th, 2016

      There is no politics in heaven. That’s what makes it heaven. Otherwise what would be the point?

      Not that I believe in god the devil or heaven and hell.

      Reply
      • ronmac

        February 28th, 2016

        For some heaven is politics. For others the smoke in all those smoke-filled backrooms come from the fires of hell.

        Reply
        • Athabascan

          February 29th, 2016

          Agreed, but for those sad people, they don’t really belong in heaven do they?

          Reply
  4. Brian

    February 28th, 2016

    Getty was a nice man, but we needed a true conservative like Klein to realize that no one has ever taxed or spent their way into prosperity. Had Prentice been a true conservative and brought in Klein-style cuts, he would have been re-elected. The NDP won’t be re-elected for the same reason: the people are tired of bloated civil service salaries when we need major cuts to bring our spending under control. The public wants real conservatives like Klein, not phony conservatives like Getty, Stelmach, Redford, Hancock, or Prentice.

    Reply
    • anon

      February 29th, 2016

      Hey, if you don’t like public services, don’t use the roads, send your kids to school, or call the police when you hear a bump in the night. Don’t bother going to a doctor trained to the highest standards because of taxes.

      Take those things away and the private sector falls over like a house of cards. Come to think of it, that is exactly what happened in 2007/08.

      Reply
    • Death and Gravity

      February 27th, 2018

      It’s a such a lame rhetorical trick, phrasing a highly controversial, not to say utterly bogus assumption as it were unassailable truth. Do you find it often works among the modern “Conservatives” you apparently mostly hang out with?

      Reply
  5. Chris

    February 29th, 2016

    Getty tried to diversify Alberta’s economy along with some austerity measures. He failed miserably although he was probably in a no-win scenario. The current NDP government can’t send out a press release or have a media “availability” without throwing in the word “diversify” a half dozen times. I wonder if we’re going to get our own 21st century MagCan-like monument somewhere on the Alberta plains. Rest in peace Mr. Getty.

    Reply

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