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From Pacific Western to Trans Pacific: More evidence of how far Canada's Conservatives have fallen

All that remains of PWA

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On this day in 1974, the Conservative government of Alberta took over Pacific Western Airlines.

The takeover engineered by Premier Peter Lougheed and his cabinet wasn't exactly a nationalization, but it was close enough, and, astoundingly, by the standards of today's conservative movement, it was done in the interests of the government's constituents, the citizens of Alberta.

I’m sure the Canadian Press will forgive me if I appropriate several of the quotes its reporter gathered from Lougheed at the time.

"The government made the decision to acquire control of Pacific Western Airlines as a result of our concern that recent takeover proposals and schemes threatened the continuation of Pacific Western's capacity to expand and serve Alberta's growth needs," Premier Lougheed said in a statement that had been drafted for the occasion, which was published by the CP on Aug. 2, 1974. (Emphasis added.)

"Almost 80 per cent of Pacific Western Airlines revenue originates or terminates in Alberta," explained the premier, whose government was midway through its first term in office. (As an aside, this is how governments get to be 44-year dynasties: they deliver policies that are obviously in the interests of the people who elect them.)

"We wanted to assure that such a vital part of the transportation system in our province would continue to reflect the needs and interests of the people of Alberta," he went on.

"Alberta's future depends on our ability over the next decade to reduce our reliance upon the sale of depleting natural resources. For a landlocked province far from population centres, transportation is the key and air transportation, particularly air freight, is a critical factor," he said.

What a concept: Recognizing our resources are not renewable, planning for the future not just the next quarterly share dividend, taking responsibility for our own future and being prepared to act decisively in the interests of citizens. In other words, taking the long view.

To make sure it had complete control of the airline, the Lougheed Government offered shareholders an irresistible $13 a share -- "which reflects the government's judgment of the value of the stock on a complete control basis,” Lougheed said.

Soon after the sale was completed, the new owner quickly moved the airline’s headquarters from the Vancouver area to Calgary.

Naturally, Lougheed was not without critics from the rightward edge of his own party. The even-then doctrinaire market fundamentalists at the Edmonton Journal assailed him for "the spectacle of a Conservative free-enterprise government slipping across the border into socialist B.C. with the NDP-style objective of nationalizing a free-enterprise corporation."

In 1983, Lougheed's government gingerly returned the airline to the private sector -- although PWA's headquarters remained in Calgary. The next year, the Canadian airline industry was "deregulated," and the business began a steep descent from which by most measures it has never really recovered. The interests of Albertans might have been better served if the government had hung onto the airline.

As is now well known though less well understood, between the mid-1980s and the mid-zeros, Canada's entire conservative movement was skyjacked by neoliberal fanatics like our current prime minister and the leaders of Alberta's conservative opposition parties, people smart enough to downplay their true beliefs and trade on the conservative brand associated with the old Progressive Conservative Party.

Once they were firmly in control of the flight deck, the agenda of this ideology, which isn't conservative at all, has been to advance at all costs their religion-like faith that the private sector always does everything better than government. Everything except tilting the playing field in the favour of the largest corporations, that is.

So in barely two generations, Canadian conservatism has moved from the era of Pacific Western (Airlines) to that of the Trans Pacific ("Partnership"), that is, from acting unashamedly in the interests of citizens, to acting stealthily against the interests of citizens.

If the closed-door, absolutely secret, elites-only TPP talks have stalled for the moment, by the way, don’t count on that happy respite lasting very long. Neoliberals remain firmly in charge of too many of the planet's jurisdictions, and they will continue to push their interests aggressively, and in secret, in hopes of implanting them in a way impervious to democratic reform.

Back in the day, when Lougheed was still in control of the province's flight deck, it would have been a shocking thing to suggest that a New Democratic Party premier would one day occupy the same chair.

But that was before Canadian conservatism had so sharply deviated from its original instinct to conserve what adherents saw as being of value in society toward radical market-fundamentalist lunacy that significant numbers of voters began to catch on.

That said, today's Alberta NDP led by Rachel Notley, it could be persuasively argued, is considerably more conservative by many measures than was Lougheed's PC Party.

If you doubt this, and sticking to the theme of transportation, how likely do you think it is that the Notley Government, even with its significant majority, would have the fortitude, the political wherewithal or even the inclination to create the province-wide public highway bus system desperately needed to address the huge transportation gap the private sector cannot or will not fill?

No, the days are long gone when a provincial government would dare to act decisively in the face of the prevailing dogmatic ideology to ensure the transportation needs, and the long-term economic interests, of citizens are protected.

More's the pity. Here's to Aug. 1, 1974!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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