Nova Scotia·Analysis

NDP Leader Gary Burrill now leads a caucus that didn't back him

The Nova Scotia NDP caucus has a new leader in Gary Burrill, but not a single member of that caucus backed Burrill during the leadership contest.

But Burrill has the moral authority to push ahead with his agenda, writes the CBC's Jean Laroche

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)

The Nova Scotia NDP caucus has put off its official welcome for new leader Gary Burrill, initially scheduled for today, after one member injured their shoulder and two had other plans or meetings.

When there are only six people in caucus, you want all hands on deck to mark special occasions.

When the media is eventually invited in to record the event for posterity, the public will see a hearty welcome with plenty of applause and smiles. But the fact is not a single elected member of the team picked Burrill as their first choice for leader.

Chester-St. Margaret's MLA Denise Peterson-Rafuse backed Lenore Zann, the second-place finisher. Caucus rookie and Dartmouth South MLA Marian Mancini supported Dave Wilson, who finished last. 

Interim leader Maureen MacDonald did not officially back any of the candidates, but she is widely believed to have been solidly in the Wilson camp. 

Queens-Shelburne MLA Sterling Belliveau remained neutral.

'Ignored and slighted'

If you believe former MLA and longtime New Democrat Howard Epstein's account of his years in caucus, Burrill being at odds with most of his colleagues is nothing new for him. 

In his book Rise Again, Nova Scotia's NDP on the Rocks, Epstien said: "Critics in caucus, such as Gary Burrill, were ignored and slighted."

And when Burrill was ministerial assistant to Peterson-Rafuse, the community services minister in the NDP government, Epstein said he "was never asked for any input on anything."

New agenda

Now that he's in charge, it will be up to Burrill to ignore or embrace whatever advice caucus members bring to the table. His 60 per cent support from the party's rank and file in the leadership race gives Burrill the moral authority to push ahead with his personal agenda.

That includes:

  • $15/hour minimum wage.
  • Restoring the film tax credit.
  • Extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.
  • Providing adequate income assistance.
  • Extending MSI to include dental care.
  • Establishing a voluntary junior primary program for four year olds.
  • Eliminating college and university tuition.
  • Increasing taxes for top income earners by at least 1 per cent.
  • Ending tax on funerals.
  • Adopting an environmental bill of rights.

Those policy ideas are not official party policy, nor are they guaranteed to become NDP platform promises in the next provincial election, but these are ideas supported by the new leader, and by virtue of the leadership vote, have the tacit support of New Democrats who backed Burrill.

It means that what Burrill called putting "a better road squarely and effectively before the people of our province" starts Wednesday, in earnest. 

Turkey supper politics

During his victory speech in Dartmouth, Burrill paid tribute to his wife Debbie's ability to recruit new members to the local Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley riding association.

Traditionally stalled at 20 or so members, she was able to quadruple that during the leadership campaign by recruiting a group of people who help organize an annual turkey supper at a local church. When he asked her how she accomplished that, he says she replied:

"I know in politics they do a lot of talking, but the thing with organizing turkey suppers at the church is you actually have to go and get the people to cook the turkeys."

Burrill went onto tell New Democrats that the job ahead would be similar.

"So this is the job that is before us in this moment," he said. "Draw together the people who will be required to do now some serious cooking of some turkeys."


Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.


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