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Brian Mason, who kept NDP flame alight in Alberta's Legislature, to retire from politics

Soon-to-retire former NDP leader Brian Mason, now Alberta’s minister of transport, at yesterday’s news conference (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Brian Mason, who as party leader kept the NDP flame burning brightly in the Alberta Legislature from 2004 to 2014 even when the caucus was small enough to truly meet in a phone booth, announced yesterday he is about to pull the plug on a 29-year political career that has been a success by any measure.

Maybe it was symbolic Mason chose Independence Day to call a news conference at the Alberta Legislature "to discuss his political future."

It was certainly characteristic for the blunt-spoken and wryly humourous representative for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, longest-serving MLA in the House, to march into the Legislature's media room at 11 a.m. sharp and declare: "I will not be running again in the next election. Does anyone have any questions?"

Well, the reporters there did, of course, but that swept the big one right off the table!

He'll stick around until the election expected in 2019, Mason said, and will continue to serve as Premier Rachel Notley's transportation minister and House Leader. After that, he'll be retiring to British Columbia where he'll enjoy a glass of wine or two in the Okanagan where he and his wife plan to reside.

If Mason doesn't approve of the wine boycott or war of words with British Columbia led by the former MLA from his tiny caucus who is now premier, well, despite his instinct to be blunt he proved too loyal and savvy a political pro to say so. Given the occasion, no one among the journos at the news conference was about to poke him with that particular stick.

Still, Mason's announcement of his plans came with a light-hearted warning: "I've earned my crankiness … and I intend to employ it." The tone of yesterday's news conference, though, was more emotional and nostalgic.

Mason got his start in politics at the University of Alberta Student Union. He ran as a lefty candidate for Edmonton City Council in 1983 and, when he didn't win, got a job as a city bus driver, where he burnished his skill dealing with the public. He ran for council again in 1989 and also ran afoul of an Edmonton bylaw banning city employees from seeking office. He challenged the law in court and lost but, no matter, ran anyway and won. Since then, Mason has run 10 times for public office and won 10 times, usually by overwhelming margins. Constituents love him.

After victories in his northeast Edmonton city ward in 1992, 1995 and 1998, he made the jump to provincial politics when Pam Barrett, the NDP's leader and MLA for what was then called Edmonton-Highlands, quit in 2000.

Mason succeeded Raj Pannu as NDP leader in 2004, and stepped aside as leader to make way for Notley at exactly the right moment in 2014. "My proudest achievement," he noted yesterday, "was talking her into running for leader." That took "six years of hounding," he added.

Whatever happens in 2019, when the next provincial election is anticipated, the outcome of the vote in May 2015 changed Alberta politics forever. "We have real elections in Alberta now," Mason averred. "Real elections that make a difference."

Gone are the days when Albertans simply assumed one party would be in power forever, and there was nothing they could do about it. That meaningful advance in democracy became reality through Mason's work.

It also accounts for much of what people call the nastier tone in Alberta politics, Mason added philosophically: "That's partly because it's competitive now."

Mason had lots to say about the difference between government and opposition. The former gives you an opportunity to implement policies you believe in -- but also to see how the wheels of government grind, forcing elected representatives to confront complications that must be weighed before making a decision.

Opposition is easier, and more fun. Look, he told a reporter, in opposition "you can have a news conference at 11. You can crap all over them. And you can go home for lunch. You're done for the day!"

Still, the potential for making real change made "walking in and sitting on the other side of the House for the first time" one of the best days of his life. Someone asked: Did you think that would ever happen? His simple answer: 'No. … I knew some political party would defeat the Conservatives. I wasn't convinced it was going to be us."

"The amazing thing about being in government is you're not just hectoring the government, you're actually doing it," Mason added. "That's a privilege and I'm extremely grateful for it."

He recalled how he demanded the resignation of Alison Redford as premier -- and hoped she wouldn't quit. Did he wink when he hinted the Wildrose Party may have pushed too hard to get Redford to go? Maybe. My eyes aren't as good as they used to be.

Mason had kind words for old friends like the late Jack Layton, old adversaries like PC premier Dave Hancock, and even for Ralph Klein, his foe in the successful fight to save public health care in Alberta. "On his best days …" (Mason paused) " … he had a certain charm."

Even the provincial bureaucracy that can so frustrate some politicians came in for praise. "I love my bureaucrats … but they have their ways. And you have to be wise to them.' He defended Notley's decision not to make big changes in the provincial civil service when the NDP took office. If the NDP had done that, he said, "it would have been two years before we got anything done." As it is, the NDP has unquestionably accomplished plenty, with fewer stumbles the longer they have been in government.

Mostly, though, Mason said he's grateful to the voters "for supporting me through 10 elections," and he's hopeful they'll do the same for the government he helped to build.

'I think the wisdom of the course we followed is becoming apparent," he explained. Faced with the downturn in oil revenues, the NDP had to choose between the strategies of Tory cuts or protecting public services. They chose the latter course, worked to diversify the economy, and even succeeded where Conservatives never could with the Trans Mountain Pipeline. As the economy recovers, "it's proving to be the right choice."

"My expectation is that as the economy improves and we continue to get the deficit down, that we're going to' be re-elected, Mason declared.

His assessment of his own career? A success, obviously. "We have a majority government. I toiled in the trenches for many years to get to that point." This is pretty hard to dispute.

What will he call his memoir? "I didn't say I was writing one. Good try!"

Why just now? "I'll be 65 in October. I think that's enough."

His last line yesterday: "Let's call it a career, then. Shall we?" Exit, stage left. Not a dry eye in the house.

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

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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