Politics

Gary Burrill elected Nova Scotia NDP leader

New leader wants to take the third-place party out of the political wilderness

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The ballroom was electric when Burrill gave his last campaign speech.   Danielle Cameron

Gary Burrill won with 59 per cent of the votes on Saturday afternoon. He beat Dave Wilson and Lenore Zann, two sitting members of legislature, to become the new leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party.

There were surges of frenzied orange sign waving and euphoric cheering at this weekend’s NDP leadership convention, but also quieter moments of detectable suspense.

Polls closed at 2 p.m. and the winning candidate’s name was announced promptly at 2:30 p.m.

“I have a deep sense of the contribution, the skills and the capacity of Lenore Zann and David Wilson. I probably have a deeper sense of this than most people,” Burrill said of his rivals after his victory was secured.

Dave Wilson and Lenore Zann congratulate Gary Burrill
Dave Wilson and Lenore Zann congratulate Gary Burrill.   Danielle Cameron

The day was long. In the morning, at the Holiday Inn in Dartmouth, three campaign-weary candidates gave their final speeches – each trying hard to get in their last policy pushes and land a few jabs at Premier Stephen McNeil and their Progressive Conservative opponent, Jamie Baillie.

Most memorable of the three speeches was when Gary Burrill got loud laughs and cheeky cheers from the crowd for referring to McNeil and Baillie as “economic mastodons.”

Things got serious when the newly elected leader had to address a big reality.

There’s a lot of work to do. Former leader Darrell Dexter stepped down after a devastating loss to the Liberals in 2013, to be replaced by interim leader Maureen MacDonald. The NDP holds only six of the 51 seats in the Nova Scotia legislature.

Second round win

The day’s leadership vote was close – not one candidate had a clear majority on the first round. Voters rank the three candidates by preference. Burrill came out with 921 votes, Zann had 705 votes, and Wilson picked up 645.

Coming in third, Dave Wilson lost the first-round ballot and was dropped; his votes were then redistributed between Burrill and Zann. Burrill won in the second round with 59 per cent of the vote when his 1,343 votes defeated Zann’s 926, after winning 66 per cent of Wilson’s redistributed votes.

NDP and Intelivote, the local Dartmouth electronic voting company, report that voter turnout was 74.2 per cent.

“We were advised by Intelivote that it’s a record turnout for electronic voting for the leadership of any political party in Canada,” said Dennis Theman, party executive and former provincial secretary (1987-1990).

Who is Gary Burrill?

Burrill delivers his victory speech
Burrill delivers his victory speech.   Danielle Cameron

Burrill was born in Woodstock, N.B. He worked as a United Church minister and served as the member of the legislative assembly for Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley from 2009 until 2013. The 60-year-old was one of 24 New Democrats to lose his seat in the last election in 2013.

Interestingly, he was also the only candidate in this leadership race to not have a seat in the house.

He holds graduate degrees in theology and sociology from Queen’s University and Harvard. He’s a husband and a father to four adult children.

He’s known for his mastery of public speaking and working a room, as well as his close relations with former MLA Howard Epstein.

His campaign focused on notions of democratic renewal and social, environmental and economic justice.

“People should be buying their food at a grocery store instead of waiting in line at the food bank,” he said.

Where does the party go from here?

MacDonald was relieved to hand over the reins to Burrill. “I’m looking forward to a transition,” she said. “Now I get to go home. My first love is my constituency. I’m just thrilled.”

MacDonald gladly passed on the torch to Burrill
MacDonald gladly passed on the torch to Burrill.   Danielle Cameron

Like any new leader, Burrill confronted many hard-hitting questions at the end-of-day news conference.

When asked whether his stances go against any traditional, long-standing Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative values, he shot back.

“You know, sometimes I think we have a stereotype,” Burrill said, “that the people of Nova Scotia are somehow basically, in nature, conservative and we’re going to provide leadership in another direction than that. An egalitarian direction, which is the NDP’s direction – that we have to somehow go against this basic tendency of our people’s culture. I just think this is a completely mistaken stereotype.”

He took exception to the idea that the NDP wasn’t offering anything new, but instead was merely retreating back to safe standard of party practice.

“The phrase ‘back to NDP values’ is a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation – what we’re doing is going ahead to NDP values,” said Burrill.