Brian Mason

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

About all you need to do is change the first line of A Tale of Two Cities to the best of exits, the worst of exits, and Charles Dickens could almost have been comparing the first steps on the short road to a graceful departure from Alberta politics taken yesterday by NDP Leader Brian Mason, and the clamorous retreat from public life last month by former premier Alison Redford.

Well, maybe the season of Darkness is going a little far. What’s happening in Alberta would only seem like the French Revolution if you’re a die-hard Progressive Conservative Party loyalist like Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock, who stood in as premier when the Tory caucus gave Redford the bum’s rush after it started to seem as if her repeated embarrassments were becoming too much of a habit for even Alberta’s Dynastic Conservatives to put up with.

Still, say what you will about Mason, and there were New Democrats who certainly didn’t agree with the direction he took on every policy, including this one, he sure as hell never embarrassed his party.

As Edmonton Journal political columnist Graham Thomson accurately wrote in his column yesterday, “there were many days in the past 14 years when Mason was arguably the most able MLA in the assembly, punching far above his weight as he held the government to account.” For this, he is widely respected by opponents and allies alike.

The Calgary-born Mason was a political science student, Edmonton bus driver, trade union activist and Edmonton city councillor for 11 years before he was first elected to the Legislature in 2000. He famously lost a constitutional challenge in 1989 against a provincial law that banned employees from running for municipal office — then ran anyway and won. The law was eventually repealed.

At 60, Mason will have outlasted four Tory premiers when he formally steps aside as leader this fall. The NDP leadership vote will take place less than a month after the PCs pour their sacred Tory anointing oil atop the head of banker Jim Prentice.

Mason surprised almost everyone with his announcement yesterday morning. It’s reliably reported by party insiders that he only told his three caucus mates yesterday was the day 20 minutes or so before he informed the public. Any one of Rachel Notley, David Eggen and Deron Bilous would make an effective leader.

But Mason’s judgment was probably right even if his timing was abrupt. After 14 years in the Legislature and a decade as leader, it is time for a change — and so Albertans will have a political leadership race that really matters, if only because the new social democratic leader is likely to be around for a while.

It is fair to say Mason’s record was mixed. He probably saved the NDP from being wiped out more than once. But even after a good election for the party, the NDP caucus could never quite break free from numbers low enough for a meeting in a phone booth — a far cry from the 16 seats the party held in 1986.

Still, Mason proved to be a determined and effective leader — and in party circles had a reputation as a difficult boss. Well, such things often go together, and may be necessary.

When he announced his plan to step aside yesterday, he said the party is “ready for prime time” — but that it needs the excitement of a leadership contest to bring it to the attention of the public beyond the Edmonton area, the only part of Alberta where an Orange Wave is ever likely to be a factor.

He boasted rightly that under his leadership, the party has grown its membership among young people, many of whom will be effective standard bearers in the future.

But then, Mason was never better than when he was with young people. When he spoke to a class of my journalism students at a fairly conservative Christian college in Edmonton, he held them in the palm of his hand — witty, engaging, passionate. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise when several turned into committed New Democrats.

As leader, Mason was something of a bon vivant, seldom unwilling to give back a little to his party. I once saw him pay more than $600 for an “I’m Supportin’ Morton” button at a party fund-raising auction. (Conservative hard-liner and two-time leadership candidate Ted Morton used the slogan for both his leadership runs — and I want the NDP to know that Mason’s generous bid inspired me to acquire a pristine I’m Supportin’ Morton T-shirt, size XL, for sale at any post-leadership NDP fund-raising event attended by Mason.)

Presumably this quality is something Mason will take with him to his retirement home in British Columbia’s Okanagan wine growing region.

Yeah, yeah, the outgoing NDP leader said he was thinking of sticking around for a while as an MLA, but I suspect that’s a diplomatic way of keeping a scrap over his Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood seat from erupting until after the party has had a chance to choose its next leader.

Certainly there will be leadership candidates from outside the caucus, and more than one may be eyeing Highlands, which under Mason at least has remained a safe seat for the NDP.

Redford’s noisome exit, meanwhile, continues to reverberate from Zama City in the province’s north to the southern Calgary suburb of Palm Springs, California, a lesson in how not to leave politics.

But when Mason goes, taking his famous one-liners with him to his Okanagan redoubt, the silence around here will be deafening, and more’s the pity.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...