Unelected party leaders see drawbacks, benefits during House sitting

Over the past 20 years, there have been six party leaders who have had to fight their way into the house after they were chosen by their parties. NDP Leader Gary Burrill is the latest.

Francis MacKenzie led Liberals 20 months without ever taking a seat in legislature

This will be NDP Leader Gary Burrill's view of the Nova Scotia Legislature during the spring sitting as he doesn't hold an elected seat entitling him to place on the floor. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Being picked to lead a political party doesn't guarantee you a seat in the Nova Scotia Legislature. Since 1992, there have been six leaders in Nova Scotia forced to lead their elected representatives from the public gallery rather than the floor of the chamber.

That's what NDP leader Gary Burrill will have to do until he can win a seat, either in a byelection or during the next general election. He may get a chance to contest with a byelection now that NDP stalwart Maureen MacDonald has resigned her Halifax Needham seat.

In the past two decades, Francis MacKenzie is the only leader to have led his troops entirely from outside Province House. Chosen Liberal leader in October 2004, he took a pass at trying to win a seat left vacant after the death of Provincial Conservative MLA John Chataway. The Liberal candidate lost to Conservative Judy Streatch by only 407 votes in June 2005.

MacKenzie failed in his one and only attempt to win a seat in the general election a year later. Residents of Bedford chose the Conservative candidate instead. MacKenzie stepped down a week after that vote.

The corner of the legislature library that Helen MacDonald occupied as "The Lady of the Library" in 2000-01. (Jean LaRoche/CBC)

New Democrat Helen MacDonald, who led the NDP for nine month from July 2000 to April 2001, met a similar fate after she finished third in a byelection in Cape Breton North in March 2001. That defeat led to a messy caucus revolt by six caucus members who were dubbed "the cyanide six" by those upset by the move.

MacDonald herself earned the moniker "The Lady of the Library" because when the House was sitting, she and her staff took over a table in the library at the legislature.

Danny Graham, who spent 16 months leading the Liberals, also refused to run in a byelection. He said Liberal Russell MacKinnon offered to resign his seat but he preferred to wait for a general election. He won his way into the legislature in August 2003. He unseated a popular, but controversial,cabinet minister Jane Purves.

Looking back, Graham said there were pluses and minuses to leading from outside the house.

"I think it's a double-edged sword," he said.

Although he didn't get the attention of reporters who cover provincial politics and that may have cost him some much needed exposure as a new leader, he said it allowed him time to travel across the province, to rebuild the Liberal party and prepare for the next election.

"It allowed for me to recruit candidates and engage the people and not just the microphones." 

Graham admitted not being on the floor of the legislature until he had been leader for 16 months meant he wasn't as polished a leader in the House as he would have liked.

Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill doesn't have an elected seat so won't be permitted on the floor of the legislature when the House is sitting. (James Hutt)

"The learning curve was steeper when I became an MLA."

Graham resigned as leader in January 2004 to help his family, after his wife, Sheelagh Nolan, was diagnosed with cancer.

Most party leaders try to get into the House as quickly as possible.

Liberal John Savage won his seat nine months after getting the leader's job. Russell MacLellan, his successor, only waited five months. And current Conservative leader Jamie Baillie won his Cumberland South seat two months after being chosen to lead the PCs.

Burrill hasn't said whether he will run in Halifax Needham when the premier calls a byelection. Stephen McNeil said he won't take a whole year to hold a vote which is the maximum time allowed after a seat becomes vacant.


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