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The value of a maverick

It’s not easy being the political leader whose party never wins an election. It’s not easy being popular in your riding and among your constituents, but never to be among the majority in any legislature. Always on the wrong side of the aisle.

It’s not easy — but man, is it ever important.

I expect that Brian Mason, who announced his retirement this week as leader of the Alberta New Democrats, understands that though he has never been a winner in the traditional political sense, he is far from being a failure.

Alberta has never been kind to the opposition.

Albertans, who like to view themselves as independent thinkers, mavericks who figure things out for themselves, vote as a herd. Always.

Since the Tory defeat of the Social Credit dynasty that had held the province for decades after the Great Depression, the Progressive Conservatives sometimes held all but two seats. Holding four members in opposition was like a landslide.

I can’t remember what the big political crisis was, but in 1986, the NDs won all of 19 seats with Ray Martin as leader. In 1993, things returned to normal, and the NDs lost them all, and did not return to the legislature until 1997, when they gained their traditional two seats.

For almost all his career as MLA and party leader, Brian Mason was in that tiny minority. It takes a special type of grit for a caucus that small to hold to accountability a government so powerful that it can lose sight of the difference between party and government. Between party interest and taxpayers’ money.

But I suppose Mason got used to that early.

His grandfather was a Tory senator. His dad was reported as being a Red Tory, who later stepped to the right and helped Preston Manning form the Reform Party. Mason’s biography notes his mother voted Liberal.

So when politics came up at the supper table, I wonder how many votes young Brian won.

He was a minority voice when I first met him at the University of Alberta. I was the editor of the student newspaper, Mason was a vice-president of the Students Union and a director of the Alberta Federation of Students.

The issues then for the Alberta federation? Rising tuition fees and oppressive student loans. Like I said, ever in the wilderness.

Official biographies can exaggerate, but we are told that Mason’s experience as a City of Edmonton bus driver, on a route covering the lower-income north side, brought home to him how working-class people struggled in Alberta’s booming economy. Even more so when Alberta’s economy went bust.

He was urged to run for city council and represented the people on his northeast city route for 11 years.

He made the jump to provincial politics in the same region, in a byelection, and has been the popular minority voice ever since.

It’s easy to make fun of an opposition that almost never polls above 15 per cent of the popular vote. But among that 15 per cent live Alberta’s true maverick thinkers.

So what’s his legacy?

Some useful pressure on the government to look at lowering your car insurance costs is one thing. Being among the first to note the looming crisis in seniors care was another.

Another would be making Albertans remember that running roughshod over the province’s own health care, social services and educators is not a good idea — even if large numbers of them obviously vote Tory. It must have worked — they’re the highest paid in the country.

Political prognosticators, who are correct almost as often as random chance, suggest there could be a saw-off on the right in the next provincial election, the battle to lead the herd between the Tories and Wildrose.

In that event, a minority party might hold some sway in a minority government.

If that happens, it would be a new universe for the Alberta New Democrats. The old school would be out of step. Time for a new leader.

Knowing when to step down is leadership of a higher degree than is usually seen in Alberta politics.

In the minority there, too.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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