PROV - The 'free thinker' who would be premier: Lyle Oberg has always reached his goals at a tender age
October 15, 2006 - Lyle Oberg still chuckles about his famous quote calling junior high boys "a bunch of goofballs."
The words uttered when he was education minister five years ago got him into a bit of hot water, even with junior high girls. He still says anyone who has ever raised kids knows that boys go through a goofy phase.
So what is his son Scott doing now that he has finished high school? "Guess," Oberg says with a wry smile.
Engineering at the University of Alberta?
No. Bartending in Lethbridge.
But that's all right, he says. Kids need time to decide what they want to do.
Oberg himself has always been too focused to be put in the goofball category. He was a medical school graduate at 23 and an MLA at 33. He had his first cabinet post at 37. Now he is battling to be leader of the Progressive Conservative party and Alberta's next premier.
During an interview at his home, which backs onto a sports field in suburban Sherwood Park, Oberg appears relaxed. Barefoot and wearing blue jeans, his biggest worry on this day seems to be whether the family dog, a friendly German shorthair called Heidi, should be allowed in the living room with its beige carpet and leather couches. In the end, the dog wins and flops on the floor beside him.
With his lanky six-foot-three frame and boyish face, Oberg looks younger than his 46 years, and thanks to his single-mindedness, he has squeezed a lot into them.
He was a typical high school student, joining sports teams, but he didn't goof off or travel the world after high school, a fact he regrets somewhat. He went straight into pre-medicine at Red Deer College, then medicine at the U of A.
Oberg had always wanted a rural practice, partly because it offered more challenges and partly because of his rural roots.
The Obergs, originally from Sweden, have been farming around Forestburg since they emigrated from Minnesota about a century ago. There are still about two dozen Obergs in the Forestburg phone book.
Early on, he did a locum in Fairview for Dr. Doug Snider, who would be killed 15 years later by a colleague, Dr. Abraham Cooper, in one of Alberta's most notorious slayings.
Oberg looked after Snider's practice and even looked after his children.
"He was a nice guy. I quite liked him. The patients loved him, too."
He started practising in Cold Lake. With his first wife eight months pregnant and having built a house, Oberg was ready to settle down there.
But his plans changed when he inadvertently found himself in the middle of a nasty spat between two doctors at the local hospital. The doctors got into a fist fight, and Oberg ended up being a witness to an assault. He also had to stitch up one of the feuding physicians.
An official from the College of Physicians and Surgeons told Oberg that Cold Lake might not be the best place for him to be and suggested he accept an opening in Brooks.
He was a family doctor there for 14 years, including his first four years in the legislature as a backbencher.
He had never belonged to a political party until 1993. At the last minute, he decided to compete for the Tory nomination against veteran MLA Tom Musgrove, thinking he could do a better job of representing Brooks. He won the nomination by a big margin. In four elections since, no other candidate has received enough votes to get back his or her deposit.
He joined the legislature just as the Klein Revolution was beginning. As a backbencher, he was part of the "Deep Six" of fiscal hawks, along with the likes of Lorne Taylor, Murray Smith and leadership hopeful Ed Stelmach.
He gave up his practice when he was appointed to cabinet in 1997. He served in three high-profile cabinet portfolios -- social services, education and infrastructure -- but he also wanted health. He was told a doctor couldn't serve as health minister, but he disagreed, pointing out that many justice ministers have been lawyers and a former principal, Halvar Jonson, was education minister.
Jon Havelock, also one of the Deep Six, became close friends with Oberg during that era, and Oberg was best man at his wedding.
Havelock doesn't want to talk about why he left Oberg's leadership campaign early on in the race, other than to say he had a lot of other commitments. But he is very complimentary about Oberg's abilities and says he still supports him.
"He's very sharp and, along with being sharp, he's prepared to be proactive," Havelock says.
Oberg isn't particularly religious, but he says he has a strong moral code based on responsibility.
"I believe in people's responsibility and accountability," he says. "We need to be responsible for our mistakes. I believe government should not interfere in people's affairs -- it should be an enabler of people."
Oberg was appointed to cabinet in 1997, initially as the social services minister. The harshest period of cuts had
already been made, and the welfare rolls had been severely chopped.
Oberg was under fire when his plan to dismantle the Assured Income for the
Severely Handicapped program, or AISH, was leaked. He eventually backtracked and maintained the program.
His time as a minister of what was then the Department of Learning was controversial, too.
Larry Booi, former president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, says he got along fine with Oberg when he first took over the portfolio. He was initially very approachable, and "there's a kind of a charm to him," Booi says. "He's not stuffy. He's got a down-to-earth way about him."
But in 2002 he played hardball against teachers, holding long-awaited wage increases to a fraction of those given to doctors, nurses, other public sector workers and MLAs themselves. That led to 22 locals of the ATA going out on strike.
Booi says he was told that even then Oberg had leadership aspirations, and he wanted to show he could be tough with the public sector.
Booi and others have since noted the incongruity of another union group, the Alberta Building Trades Council, deciding to back Oberg by buying party memberships for its members.
Oberg's lengthy resume shows he's no goofball, but he has said a few goofy things in his time, not least of which was an angry speech last winter after Premier Ralph Klein told leadership candidates they had to step down from cabinet.
"If I were the premier, I wouldn't want me sitting as a backbencher," he said. "I know where all the skeletons are."
That got him kicked out of caucus. Oberg says the expulsion took a political and personal toll.
It was bad enough to lose his infrastructure portfolio and have his seat plunked down in the nether regions of the legislature during the last two months of the spring sitting.
"The worst part is people I thought were friends were saying things that would absolutely curl your toes," he says.
He eventually got back into caucus, but he still might be considered a bit of an outsider.
"I wouldn't call myself a renegade," he says. "A free thinker, yes. I've always stood up for what I feel is right. You take your consequences."
Birth: Near Forestburg on Jan. 6, 1960.
Family: Married with four children through blended family.
Education: Red Deer College and University of Alberta
Occupation outside politics: Family physician
Noteworthy: Likes carpentry. He remodelled his cabin near Brooks and laid laminate flooring in his Sherwood Park house.
Source: The Edmonton Journal - Mike Sadava