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Nova Scotia New Democrats elect Gary Burrill as new leader

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Nova Scotia NDP leader Gary Burrill

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Nova Scotia New Democrats have taken a decisive turn to the progressive left with the election of Gary Burrill as the new leader of the NDP.

The post has been vacant since the fall of 2013 when Premier Darrell Dexter's government was roundly defeated by the Liberals under Stephen McNeil, reducing it from majority government to third-party status. Dexter lost his own seat in Cole Harbour and resigned as leader of the Nova Scotia NDP on November 23, 2013. [Note: for more information on the Dexter Government and the reasons for its demise see Election Nova Scotia: Orange crush to red tide.] Since then Maureen MacDonald, MLA from Halifax-Needham, has been serving as the interim leader of the party.

In a three-person contest with MLAs Lenore Zann and Dave Wilson, Burrill emerged with a clear win securing the first and second choice preferences of 1,343 members (of 2,269 voters) in an election that employed ranked balloting and in which a record 74.2 per cent of eligible NDP members voted. Lenore Zann came second while Dave Wilson finished in third place. (See Figure 1)

NS NDP Leadership VoteOver the last two-and-a-half years it has become clear that there are two disparate camps within the NDP in Nova Scotia (with some NDP members variously poised in between) around which the leadership contest pivoted: 

1) A progressive, reformist wing of the NDP strongly committed to core social democratic principles and interested in transformative government. Adherents attribute the 2013 electoral loss in large measure to the Dexter government having equivocated and compromised too much on these values, losing its focus on social democracy and hence its core political raison d'être. This ideological drift towards the political centre resulted in a loss of substantive differentiation between the NDP and other parties and disillusioned voters and a substantial swath of the party base, who supported the NDP in 2009 because they were tired of the "same old, same old" axis of Nova Scotia politics.

2) A steady-as-she-goes wing of the NDP largely content with a status quo approach to politics, happy to play on more or less the same political field as the Liberals and Conservatives, albeit with an orange complexion on the traditional Bluenose political face. This incremental view of politics characterized the Dexter administration's approach.

Burrill's politics fall squarely within the ambit of the former. As I wrote in my earlier interview with him, From pulpit to soapbox: Gary Burrill vies for the Nova Scotia NDP leadership:

"At first blush appearing calm, considered, and understated Gary Burrill is a full-steam, full-bore social democrat, wholly committed to social, economic, and environmental justice. He brings to the gathering a lifetime of work as a social activist; a writer, editor, and publisher of keenly analytical works that probe the social, spiritual, and material bases of our society; a pastor to rural communities in the province; and legislator and a MLA in the previous Nova Scotia NDP government.

"Burrill is unquestionably a patient builder. He's been doing it all his life. Building community, raising awareness, fostering personal and spiritual growth, developing understanding, laying bare the social and economic foundations of society, exposing unfairness and finding ways to remediate it. Burrill's approach is thoughtful, patient, attentive, analytical, and underpinned by respect and consideration -- even for those with whom he has profound disagreements. It's not flashy, sensational, or hyperbolic -- it is calm, reflective, considered and radiates integrity.

"Burrill's belief that, "The heart and lungs of a party are the people that gather in somebody's front room or their kitchen," requires a party prepared to organize itself in such as away as to actualize this sentiment. There are also bones, muscles, and other organs that participate in the body politic, and all of these are important and necessary in order to attain power and then direct political change. However, the breath of social and economic justice and environmental sustainability must animate this entity. If the NDP wants to find a leader who can direct such a movement, they would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Gary Burrill." 

Gary Burrill

For a fuller exploration of Burrill's views I recommend readers to my interview with him, From pulpit to soapbox: Gary Burrill vies for the Nova Scotia NDP leadership. Burrill's election clearly indicates that Nova Scotia New Democrats (and over the period of the leadership race party membership swelled from approximately 1,800 to 3,062) have moved decisively towards an activist, transformative, social democratic vision of the party.

Burrill is not only a full-bore progressive, he is also a very sharp thinker with a broad understanding of a large gamut of social, political, economic, and spiritual issues.  A United Church minister he came to social democracy along somewhat the same social gospel path that brought Tommy Douglas to the CCF and then the NDP -- and is blest with some of the same oratorical skills. As a man of the cloth he brings a genuine caring and compassion to every issue and person he deals with and his approach sits on firm moral and ethical principles of compassion and community. 

No one can know how the NDP in Nova Scotia will fare under his leadership, but it could scarcely do worse than it has over the past two-and-a-half years.  The remaining caucus is a skeleton crew of six (reduced from 31), and despite the perniciously retrograde and bone-headed administration of Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil, the popularity of the NDP under the interim administration of Maureen MacDonald has plummeted, reaching a new low of 17 per cent at the end of 2015 (the Liberals meanwhile polled 64 per cent; the Progressive Conservatives also polled 17 per cent). A significant rebuild will be required if the NDP hopes to again become a contender for government in the province. (See Figure 2).

Nova Scotia Political Polling

Burrill doesn't have a seat in the Legislature, but this is not apt to consequential, at least in the near term. The task before him and the party is rebuilding and Burrill is a careful, methodical, and patient builder. He has to build the party's credibility as a social democratic force with a coherent vision, not only of getting its hands on the leavers of power, but of where it wants to steer the ship of state if it has the opportunity. Of rebuilding the public faith that the NDP is a worthy political vehicle to be entrusted with such a task. Of articulating a vision to engage people and inspire them to participate in a transformative venture. Of bringing progressives who left the NDP, not only back into the fold, but to engage them sufficiently to put their shoulder to the political wheel. Of polishing intra-party democracy which has become tarnished over the past decade. Of building a cadre of people into a team that can articulate and animate a genuine social democratic revolution. 

In accepting the leadership of the provincial NDP, Burrill said:

"In this moment, let us remember those to whom our Party is home. Students who face tuition fee hikes and impossible debts. The many who are losing access to health services. Public servants whose rights are in jeopardy, and who are working harder for less. Those who live at the sharp end of income inequality, and those who fear for a future where climate change will compromise our existence.

"Let us remember, too, that building our NDP will be hard long-term work, and it will draw extraordinary effort from us all. A vibrant Party, one strong enough to advance the causes of equality and justice, will require a renewed commitment to democracy and organization. Fulfilling this requirement means drawing many more people together for a common purpose. It is a time to invite all New Democrats -- past, present and future -- to participate meaningfully in our vision and effort."

Some pundits speculate that a provincial election could come as soon as this fall (the Liberals are not required to hold an election before the fall of 2018, five years after the last provincial election, but calls after three years, particularly when the incumbent party is riding high in the polls, are not unknown in the province), so sitting on laurels will not be an option for Burrill -- not that he would be inclined to do so in any case. Much needs to be done, and time's a wasting.

Gary BurrillThe 2009 electoral victory of the NDP in Nova Scotia illustrated that voters were willing to give the NDP a chance at governing. Despite the significant loss in 2013, the party remains competitive throughout most of mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton (in 2013 it ran second in 27 of 51 constituencies in Nova Scotia and a strong second in 18 of these). With a new focus and under a new leadership it has the possibility of re-establishing itself as a substantive force on the political landscape.

In the United States, the phenomenal surge in support of the openly socialist contender for the Democratic Party nomination, Bernie Sanders, is an indication of how strong a desire there is for new and transformative politics. Many think that We badly need a Bernie Sanders of our own. No one can know if Gary Burrill can kindle the same fire here in Nova Scotia, however Burrill inhabits the same political universe that Sanders does and has as firm a grasp on a social democratic vision as does Sanders. If we want to bring to an end the dark chapter of neoliberal greed and division, we need to organize around leaders who are prepared to energetically embark on a different social vision. Gary Burrill is certainly one of them. 

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Image: garyburrill.ca

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