Opinion

NDP Leader Gary Burrill must win a seat — or find a new job: Graham Steele

NDP Leader Gary Burrill is committed to Halifax Chebucto, but if he loses there he will have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

Without a seat, Burrill's career as NDP leader will be over

Gary Burrill, centre, celebrates with his wife Debra Perrott, right, following his election as leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party. He has to run where he can win, Graham Steele writes. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Nowhere to run, baby, nowhere to hide.

Martha and the Vandellas didn't have Gary Burrill in mind when they sang those words in 1965, but they fit.

Last week, Burrill announced he would be a candidate in Halifax Chebucto in the next provincial election.

The orange tide in 2009 floated many boats, including Burrill's own in the large rural riding of Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley.

It was never NDP territory, and Burrill was promptly swept out on the receding tide in 2013.

Now Burrill is the leader of a small third party. He has to run where he can win. The choices are few. If he picks Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley again, he will lose, and he knows it.

But where to run?

Gary Burrill, centre, celebrates with supporters following his election as leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party during the party convention. A leader in Canadian politics has no choice but to win their seat. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Haunted by ghosts

The choice of a good constituency for the leader is crucially important.

Our politics are so leader-centric that a leader must win their own seat, period.

The NDP is still haunted by the ghost of Helen MacDonald. Elected leader in 2000, she lost a byelection in Cape Breton North in 2001. She was gone within weeks.

If she had run in the more NDP-friendly Halifax Fairview, which had a byelection the same day, the next decade of Nova Scotia politics might have been very different.

End of political careers

The Liberals have their own ghosts. Then-leader Francis MacKenzie could not win Bedford in the 2006 general election, despite heavy use of party resources.

Stretching further back, leader Sandy Cameron lost his Guysborough seat in the 1984 general election.

For both, it spelled the end of their political careers.

Gary Burrill, centre, celebrates with fellow nominees Dave Wilson, left, and Lenore Zann during the party convention on Feb. 27. Ideally the leader's home-base is so secure that they can leave it for long periods. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Home-base winners

Another reason the choice of constituency is so important: the leader is the only candidate with province-wide responsibilities in a campaign.

Ideally the leader's home-base is so secure that they can leave it for long periods.

That's certainly true of Premier Stephen McNeil in Annapolis, where the only question is whether his margin of victory will be crushing, crushinger or crushingest.

Very safe at home

That also explains why Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, who lives in Halifax, represents rock-solid Cumberland South.

Every premier you can think of, going back a very long way, was very safe at home: Rodney MacDonald, John Hamm, Russell MacLellan, Don Cameron, John Buchanan, Gerald Regan, Ike Smith and Bob Stanfield. They won their seats in good times and bad.

(Yes, I know: Darrell Dexter. That's a special case. His constituency was safe as houses until suddenly, on election day, it wasn't.)

Former premier Darrell Dexter addresses supporters after being defeated in the Nova Scotia provincial election in Halifax in 2013. Dexter is the exception that proves the rule. (The Canadian Press)

Hard fight for Chebucto

Burrill is going to have to fight harder to win Halifax Chebucto than most leaders are used to.

There is favourable recent history. Chebucto elected Howard Epstein five times and went Liberal only after Epstein declined to re-offer in 2013.

Epstein is now Burrill's policy guru. No doubt he influenced Burrill to choose Chebucto. Burrill should return the favour by ensuring Epstein pounds the pavement for him.

A victory for NDP Leader Gary Burrill would also help the party's finances. (James Hutt)

Opponents aren't pushovers

Despite what Burrill himself says, this is not the same constituency that Alexa McDonough represented provincially. She was the MLA for a constituency called Halifax Chebucto, but the boundaries were very different. When the lines were re-drawn for the 1993 election, she hopped over to the more propitious Halifax Fairview.

Burrill will be up against incumbent Joachim Stroink for the Liberals. For the Progressive Conservatives, filmmaker and business owner John Wesley Chisholm has been nominated. Both are credible. Neither is a pushover.

Passing on Needham

Burrill had one other obvious choice: Halifax Needham, which covers the north end of the Halifax peninsula.

If there's no general election this fall, there will be a byelection there to replace Maureen MacDonald, who stepped down in April.

Halifax Needham has just as much of an NDP history as Halifax Chebucto. It might have gotten Burrill into the legislature faster.

Like it or not, being in the legislature gives a leader a platform and credibility.

Drain on finances

Besides, having a seatless leader is a drain on the party's finances. The NDP is not rolling in money, and would be very relieved if Burrill were drawing an MLA's salary.

But Burrill passed on Needham.

He's committed to Chebucto.

If he loses there, he will have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.

His career as NDP leader will be over.

About the Author

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.