Nova Scotia·Opinion

NDP Leader Gary Burrill expected to be vocal about social justice issues

For the first time in 15 years, Nova Scotia's New Democratic Party has a new permanent leader in Gary Burrill. Political analyst Graham Steele weighs in.

'Deep thinker' Burrill likely to return party to its left-wing roots, Graham Steele says

Gary Burrill, centre, the newly elected leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party, celebrates with fellow nominees Dave Wilson, left, and Lenore Zann during the party convention on Feb. 27. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

For the first time in 15 years, Nova Scotia's New Democratic Party has a new permanent leader.

Gary Burrill won a decisive victory last weekend over MLAs Dave Wilson and Lenore Zann.

I know Gary from the four years we served in the legislature during the Dexter government.

Gary was quiet on the back benches, but it wasn't for lack of ability. Backbenchers are supposed to be team players. Gary played the role loyally.

Inside the caucus, he spoke up a great deal more.

Excellent speaker

Gary is a deep thinker, thoughtful, very different from the usual stereotype of a politician who will say anything to get elected. He doesn't need to take a poll to know what he believes.

Gary is also an excellent speaker — easily the best of the leadership contenders or for that matter, the other party leaders. He can fire up a crowd, and do it with wit and depth.

I have no doubt that people will like Gary Burrill when they meet him. He's warm and likeable. But now he's the leader of a political party.

People may like him, but will they vote for him?

Changing of the guard

Gary's election represents a distinct changing of the guard within the NDP.

The party establishment backed Dave Wilson and the membership said, "No thanks." It wasn't close.

New NDP Leader Gary Burrill is expected to focus on traditional social justice issues: poverty, housing, income inequality, minimum wage. (James Hutt)

I don't find the left-right spectrum very useful to describe Nova Scotia politics but if it ever applied to anyone, it's Gary Burrill. Gary is distinctly left.

The issues Gary emphasizes will be traditional social justice issues: poverty, housing, income inequality, minimum wage.

He and the people around him believe that this social justice agenda hasn't had a voice in Nova Scotia for a long time. They believe there is an untapped hunger for it and that Nova Scotians will rally to the call.

Gary is the Bernie Sanders of Nova Scotia politics and you can take that whichever way you like.

The Burrill leadership campaign even tried to hitch a ride on Sanders's appeal by changing Sanders's hashtag #FeelTheBern to #FeelTheBurrill. Clever.

They are untroubled by the fact that Sanders is unlikely to win the Democratic Party nomination, much less the presidency.

For Sanders — and for Burrill — what matters is being right.

Winning is for losers. Better to be pure than to make too many compromises.

The right story

Back in the 1990s, there was a large and growing group of Nova Scotia New Democrats who got tired of losing.

They thought that more could be done from inside the legislature and from inside government, than from banging on the walls.

Darrell Dexter became the standard-bearer for that branch of the party and he carried the party to power.

Darrell Dexter addressed supporters after being defeated in the Nova Scotia provincial election in October 2013. Graham Steele said Dexter's name wasn't mentioned in the leadership speeches he heard last week. (The Canadian Press)

Now the pendulum has swung all the way back and beyond.

Dexter's accomplishments are mostly denigrated, even inside the party. He attended the leadership convention only briefly, which isn't surprising. What is surprising is that no one will speak his name.

In the leadership speeches I heard last Saturday, I didn't hear his name mentioned even once.

That's not right. It's not fair.

The party is still trying to find the right story to tell itself about what happened during the Dexter government. 

Pretending a different party was in government from 2009 to 2013 is the wrong story.

Youthful whisper

Gary Burrill and the people around him have a theory that the NDP was elected in 2009 because people expected a true-left government and didn't get one.

If you follow this theory along, the Dexter government would have been OK if it cleaved further left.

I'm dubious. The Dexter government was elected because of its moderation, not in spite of it. But I was one of the party establishment so I would believe that, wouldn't I?

I fear the NDP could be headed back to its traditional territory of a seat or three. There will be many moral victories and few actual victories.

And yet, and yet.

Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my battle-scarred heart, I hear a whisper.

The voice is my idealistic younger self when I was just out of university and ready to change the world.

And the whisper says: "When did you get so cranky, old man? Isn't this why you joined the NDP? Isn't it?"


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.