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After 12 years, Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin retires

But three-term MLA still energized by coming provincial campaign
RETIRING Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin with photo of the old Skeena bridge taken by local photogrpaher Al Richardson. It once belonged to George Heyman

ON THE verge of turning 59, Skeena NDP MLA Robin Austin says it was now or never in making a decision to retire from provincial politics after 12 years.

“If I was to run again and win, after the next term I’d be 63 and I’m not sure I’d be able to find work at that age,” said Austin during a wide-ranging interview conducted in his Terrace constituency office.

And if not for professional reasons, Austin said his wife has been urging him to retire from politics because of the time he spends away from home and the constant travel.

“That would be the personal reason,” said Austin of the factors that went into his decision making.

“I still feel young. And even though I’m not running I’m still excited and still occupied with the [upcoming election] campaign,” he said.

If there was a highlight in Austin’s political life, it came rather late – last year’s Supreme Court of Canada decision which restored class size and composition levels to what they were in the early part of the last decade before they were stripped by the BC Liberal government.

That decision came as a victory by the BC Teachers Federation from a suit it filed against the provincial government.

“I know it was a decision reached in court, but as a [NDP] caucus we spent so much time and effort on education,” said Austin who also spent time as his party’s education critic.

“When you think of the 15 years – that’s an entire generation and more of students without, especially for special needs students, the supports they needed,” he said. “And while it was Gordon Campbell as premier back then, don’t forget who the education minister was – Christy Clark,” Austin added.

The teaching positions to be created, estimated at more than 2,000 across the province by the time all is said and done, will revive lost positions such as teacher-librarians and counsellors, he said.

“Now the students will get what they deserve,” Austin continued.

If there were low points in Austin’s political career, they both involved prior leaders of the NDP.

The first low point was Austin backing calls in late 2010 by other NDP MLAs to replace Carole James as leader.

Austin admired James as a leader but even in the 2009 election, the one in which she took the NDP from two seats to 33 and back to respectability as the official opposition, he encountered party members during the campaign who questioned her ability and capability.

“Carole is a decent human being – almost too good to be in B.C. politics. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb and do things you may not be proud of,” he said. “In the end, I listened to what my constituents said and decided Carole should leave.”

His second low point also involved another leader, Adrian Dix who took the party into the 2013 provincial election – the one the NDP was widely expected to win.

But on Earth Day in Kamloops, April 23, 2013, Adrian Dix reversed what had been party support of the planned Kinder Morgan pipeline project which would increase the amount of crude oil being pumped from Alberta to Vancouver for export overseas.

The BC Liberals seized on that reversal, saying it was proof the NDP opposed all development and its campaigning on that theme is believed to have been the key to their victory May 14, 2013.

“I was surprised and it’s fair to say everyone was surprised,” said Austin of Dix’s about face. “There was no forewarning of that.”

He said the Dix reversal cut into the NDP’s traditional support from labour even though he said the party remained broadly in support of economic development.

“That perception was false, but it fed into the [BC Liberal] narrative.”

Even more galling to Austin was the other BC Liberal campaign theme in 2013 – a promise of as many as five liquefied natural gas plants (two of which the BC Liberals said would be open by now), 100,000 jobs and no debt.

“That was a complete and utter fabrication,” said Austin.

“No government has the ability to tell a multi-national company to spend $20 billion just because we have a supply of natural gas. It’s the market that decides, especially when that company has options elsewhere,” he said.

But both those political events paled to one of an intensely personal nature when Terrace resident Jim Lynch, at a 2013 provincial election all candidates meeting here, accused Austin of abusing a foster daughter.

Austin sued and was ultimately vindicated but not without first a lengthy process to get to the civil trial stage, the trial itself which took place last year and then waiting for the result.

“That had such a huge impact on myself, my family and it went on and on,” he said.

“But I did get my win … it was very clear on the first page of the 46-page judgement,” Austin continued.

Mr. Justice Robert Punnett said in the early part of that judgment: “I wish to make clear that the words spoken were unfounded, unjustified and false. There was no basis for them whatsoever. Mr. Lynch’s conduct was inexcusable. Mr. Austin as a result suffered serious damage to his reputation. He is entitled to substantial damages....”

In addition to costs, Austin was awarded $75,000 in damages, a considerable amount for defamation awards within the Canadian legal system.

If there’s one piece of advice Austin would give to whoever will be the Skeena MLA after the May 9 election, it’s always to listen to the people in the riding.

“Stay connected and follow the wishes of your constituents – that’s your job.”

With just weeks to go before Austin’s political career ends, he has no firm plans other than taking an extended visit to England to visit his parents.

“I’ll have to see what the job market is like,” said Austin who has a Bachelor of Social Work degree.

Based on his 12 years in office Austin does qualify for a pension and the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation places the first year payout at $44,112.