Former Alberta New Democratic Party leader Brian Mason has been a gale force presence in Alberta politics for so long it’s hard to imagine the place without him.
Yet there he was yesterday at lunchtime, on stage in the ballroom of Edmonton’s Westin Hotel, saying farewell to politics, the NDP he led in the provincial Legislature from 2004 to 2014, and – perhaps more than a little to his surprise – to power. At times there were tears in his eyes.
For many Albertans, there’s never been a time Mr. Mason wasn’t on the political radar screen. He was active in student politics at the University of Alberta starting in 1974, in the union movement as an Edmonton Transit driver and city politics in the 1980s, and on city council from 1989 until 2000, when he was elected to the Legislature in the Edmonton-Highlands Riding.
Most of that time he was wryly tormenting his political opponents by speaking, as we used to say, truth to power, which until 2015 in Alberta was always Conservative power.
But, as Mr. Mason admitted at the party’s tribute to his years of service during its final pre-election convention in Edmonton yesterday, “I always knew that somebody would beat those guys.” He paused … “I wasn’t sure it was gonna be us. And I wasn’t sure at all that it was going to be while I was still around, and I would be part of that!”
“And for that,” he told Rachel Notley, Alberta’s first NDP premier, “I am forever grateful for this opportunity.”
In his farewell remarks, Mr. Mason admitted former leaders can present challenges for a new leader in caucus. He noted he had former leaders Ray Martin and Raj Pannu in his. “Sometimes we think we’re still in charge. Well, Rachel does not share that illusion.”
Premier Notley nevertheless made Mr. Mason both a cabinet minister and the Government’s House Leader. That said, I don’t know she ever really let him slip his leash in pursuit of the United Conservative Party Opposition – which, at times, would have been very satisfying to witness.
With her entire caucus on stage for the farewell, Premier Notley called Mr. Mason a titan. “I wouldn’t be standing here today as leader of the party, and premier of our province, if not for the many pioneers who laid the groundwork for our party’s success. Ray and Raj were central to that … but Brian Mason, you know he drove the bus!”
Ms. Notley observed: “What a poetic path he’s taken – or maybe I should say route – from working as a transit operator for the city of Edmonton to serving as the transportation minister for the province of Alberta!”
“Over the years Brian’s held many posts, but no matter what his position, he’s always been a strong voice for his community and also a tireless fighter for people and for fairness,” she said to cheers and tears.
“The media in this province know that you could always count on Brian for a great quip, but you can also count on him to take complex issues and boil them down into something that speaks to anybody and everybody,” she continued.
But Mr. Mason is more than that, the premier explained. “Yes, he does know how to grab a headline, and he does know how to tell a story, but honestly having worked with him for these many years, it’s his incredible intellect, his strategic and his sophisticated and his people-sensitive approach to politics that has earned him the respect and the admiration of each and every person who sits in that Legislature. And that is a rarity in Canadian politics and the mark of a true Parliamentarian.”
Ms. Notley added with a sly smile: “Some of that respect from the other side comes, no doubt, because they’ve always been a little bit afraid of Brian. The fact is, Brian can outthink anyone in that chamber and do it on the fly. … It’s one of the reasons I never thought twice about making him our House Leader when we became government.”
She concluded: “Brian Mason is a Parliamentarian, he is a leader, he is an everyman, and most of all, he is a dear friend of each and every one of us. … He has looked out for the little guy for 30 years, and I have a feeling that that’s not going to stop any time soon.”
As for Mr. Mason, he naturally praised the accomplishments of Ms. Notley’s government: “It’s been a whirlwind of change … all of it benefitting people in this province, and people that have been left behind for decades.
“Our government has changed Alberta forever,” he said. “Affordable childcare. Seniors’ housing. Protections in the workplace – you know, you can’t get fired in Alberta any more if you stay home with a sick child. The most advanced and progressive climate change policy … An important program to build badly needed infrastructure. Economic diversification. Tremendous strides in recognizing and advancing the rights of Indigenous people. The list goes on and on.”
This was a smoothly run and professional pre-election party convention – what a difference a few years in power can make! – so it was not out of place for the old leader to prepare the troops for the fight to come. “We have a wonderful legacy and we want to add to that legacy,” Mr. Mason said. “And it is under threat. There’s no doubt about it, this is going to be a tough election.”
Speaking of Opposition Leader Jason Kenney, whom the media if not the upbeat mood of the NDP convention would make one believe is a cinch to win in 2019, Mr. Mason observed: “He wants austerity. He wants cuts. He wants privatization. He wants to move fast so that the opposition doesn’t have a chance to get organized. And he won’t blink. Well? Have we seen this movie before? … It’s a horror movie, and we don’t want to see it again. The movie is called Ralph Klein, The Sequel!”
“But there’s another element, a more disturbing element, to Jason Kenney that I don’t think was there before,” Mr. Mason continued. “And that is the flirtation with extremist groups. Whether it’s Rebel Media, or Soldiers of Odin, or whether it is the anti-choice activists that fill his party’s ranks, the climate deniers, there is an element to the UCP that is very disturbing and very frightening, and something that Jason Kenney has refused to disavow.”
“So we have so much at stake. Really we do. And the progress of this province should not be stopped, it should continue to move forward.”
Mr. Mason announced his intention to retire as MLA for the renamed Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood Riding on July 4. With his plans to depart now unequivocal, it would not be a surprise if before long Ms. Notley assigned his transportation portfolio to another member of caucus who plans to fight for re-election. The NDP candidate in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood will be Janis Irwin, a respected community advocate and educator.
And speaking of fighting, you could see the 2019 campaign taking shape at this convention, which continues today, as ministers and MLAs worked out the bugs of election talking points and floated examples of their coming slogans.
Bad movies notwithstanding, expect the NDP to take at least one cue from the late premier Klein and his “Ralph’s Team” campaign slogan, with the emphasis on the charismatic leader’s name, not the party’s traditional identity.
The key slogan visible this weekend: Rachel Notley. Fighting for you.
Calgary Winter Olympics gong show briefly spills into NDP convention
The gong show the city of Calgary’s proposed Winter Olympics bid is becoming briefly spilled into the NDP convention yesterday when an annoyed Finance Minister Joe Ceci took a few moments from the proceedings to rip the federal government for its “bad faith” offer to put more cash into the bid if the city and province match its contribution.
Instead of telling the province about it, Ottawa appears to have leaked the strings-attached offer to media.
“Yesterday we learned that the federal government is moving the goalpost in the fourth quarter, negotiating through the media,” Mr. Ceci told reporters. “If they put the goalposts back, we are happy to keep talking, but we’re not going to engage in any kind of bad faith tactics.”
The Calgary Herald’s Don Braid has provided an interesting and thorough account of Calgary’s foundering effort to relive the glory days of its 1988 Winter Olympics.
Vegreville Ford dealer bravely opts out of scheme to bankroll UCP
Meanwhile, in Vegreville, 100 kilometres east of Edmonton, the local Ford dealer has boldly and publicly refused to join the Motor Dealers Association’s effort to bankroll UCP Leader Jason Kenney’s campaign through a dubious PAC scheme.
“Although we are a member of the MDA, we have chosen not to contribute to the ‘Shaping Alberta’s Future’ 3rd party marketing campaign,” wrote Vegreville Ford Dealer Principal Brian Baron in a Facebook post last week.
“Our position is that we do not feel that this action supports what we feel the MDA’s or our purpose should be. Vegford is nonpartisan and it neither endorses nor supports financially any politician or political party. Our job is to take great care of our customers and our staff. We care about Albertans and we vote, but in a world that is already too divided, we feel no need to engage in controversy.”
Vegreville is best known for its giant pysanka, a 2,500-kilogram Ukrainian Easter egg on a pole, which sits on Mazankowski Way – named for the town’s previous best-known car dealer, Don Mazankowski, a senior minister in the Progressive Conservative federal governments of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.