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Gary Burrill: Hopes and Fears on the NDP’s Eastern Front

Canadian Politics

Province House • Photo by Louperivois

On October 8, 2013 the NDP achieved the ignominious feat of becoming the first one term government in Nova Scotia since 1882. They went from a majority government holding 31 of the 51 Nova Scotia seats to 7. The party was devastated. Leader Darryl Dexter lost his seat in Cole Harbour and resigned. Maureen MacDonald, one of two elected from the former NDP stronghold of the Halifax Regional Municipality, became interim leader and held that post until Gary Burrill, who had lost his Musquodoboit Valley seat in the October 2013 election, was elected leader in February, 2016. Burrill is a former United Church minister and a founding editor of the radical journal New Maritimes who is generally identified with the Left of the NDP.

Burrill was one of three candidates and the only one without a seat in the legislature. In the vote he lead after the first ballot and when the party establishment candidate Dave Wilson, who received only 28% of the vote, dropped off Burrill won over Lenore Zann with just under 60% of the vote. It was a ringing defeat for the NDP old guard that had brought the party to its lowest level in many years. MacDonald quickly resigned her seat. Burrill turfed most of the existing party staff. In short he cleaned house.

A number of people (many outsiders to the party) joined the NDP in order to vote for Burrill. His election in itself was an expression of grass roots democracy. People wanted a new kind of leader. The hope is that Gary will transform the party and create a broad based democratic movement that will engage people if not in direct decision-making at least in the debate and discussion that will inform NDP policy decisions and governance. During his leadership campaign Burrill often spoke about democratic renewal. He was less clear on how this should occur. For those seeking a genuine democratic rupture it may well be wistful thinking that people be drawn into meaningful participation in government even in a consultative or advisory role. However the promise to seek greater democracy potentially opens some doors allowing a more active and expressive civil society to emerge. If that happens it will be a break from NDP tradition particularly that witnessed under Darryl Dexter. Such an extension of democratic involvement could forge a brave new future for the party but more importantly for the people of Nova Scotia.

If Burrill can reach out and demonstrate to the people that he is a people leader and not just a party leader, then he might just oust Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil matching Dexter’s one-term fiasco. He would then be in a position to implement some of his policy promises including wiping out child poverty, free tuition fees and economic and environmental justice.

Policy objectives stated by Burrill can, if he is elected, be implemented by realigning the direction of expenditures and changing budget priorities. There is no doubt this would be a good thing for Nova Scotians. However the establishment of a truly democratic government is a far different issue. This would involve a dramatic shift in our political culture a shift that would prioritize democratic grassroots participation in governance.

While Burrill continues to emphasis democratic renewal of ’party’ structures such as the caucus and riding associations there is little suggestion of how the party could facilitate broader democratic input of citizens. One possibility might be for the party’s constituency organizations to act as organizers and facilitators of grass roots discussion groups allowing their evolution into citizens’ councils or assemblies. The party also needs to engage with social movements not just to seek their support but to partner with them in working toward change. In short, the NDP needs a democratic dialogue with the citizenry.

But this may not be in the cards. It has been pretty clearly implied, if not outright stated, that the input of citizens needs to come through democratized but still traditional NDP party structures. This conventional ‘party think’ would effectively shut out all but members from any real input into policy directions and governance. It is certainly true that the implementation of policies for social and environmental justice would be a happy relief to Nova Scotians. But for them to be more than just passive consumers of new initiatives they need to feel ‘ownership’ over them and be willing to defend them against any rollback by the Right. These quantitative changes, while certainly desirable, are not enough to make us the active subjects of our political life.

So if a Burrill future is to be any more than a repetition of the past, then a radical appraisal of party practices must occur with democracy extended beyond the limits of the professional political class. The hope is that the commitment to wipe out child poverty and provide free tuition to hard-pressed young Nova Scotians will relieve the burden of a relentless neoliberalism imposed on the province by those whose prime concern has always been the corporate bottom line. The fear is that the constraints of entrenched party habits and a tendency for easy compromises will prove to be too strong and will prevent these necessary changes from taking place in a sustainable way.

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