Nova Scotia NDP looking to ‘move up very significantly’ next election

Nova Scotia NDP leader Gary Burrill believes the stars are aligning for his party.

“We’re living in a moment where there is a tectonic ideological shift,” the ordained United Church minister and self-described socialist told the Sidebar. “The political moment which has produced the (Bernie) Sanders project in the United States is also the political moment that has produced the present project of the Nova Scotia NDP.”

Neoliberalism is “breaking down,” giving the New Democrats a chance to make gains with “a serious, egalitarian, and sustainability-oriented program,” he said.

Burrill’s party has experienced extreme highs and lows over the past 12 years.

It formed government for the first time in 2009, winning 31 of 52 seats and 45 per cent of the popular vote. But it returned to its default third-place position in 2013, losing 24 of those seats.

He said the NDP “began to move up” during the 2017 campaign, his first as leader. “And in this election, we’re looking to move up very significantly,” he said.

The province’s Liberal government, which holds a razor-thin majority in the legislature, will reach the four-year mark of its mandate in less than three months. But because Nova Scotia doesn’t have a fixed-date election law, an election isn’t necessarily imminent.

“We’re the only province in Canada that doesn’t have fixed election dates,” Burrill said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Whenever Nova Scotians do head to the polls, a fresh face will dominate Liberal campaign ads.

Premier Iain Rankin was sworn in Feb. 23 after Stephen McNeil retired from politics. The new premier has struck a more progressive tone than his predecessor, focusing on the environment, racial justice and economic inequality in his government’s first throne speech.

But Burrill isn’t convinced the new boss will be any different than the old boss.

“I don’t see anything really new with Iain Rankin,” the NDP leader said. “I was in the house when some of the most egregious things they did were put to a roll call vote. And the speaker of the house said, ‘Iain Rankin,’ and he stood up and said, ‘yes.’”

McNeil’s government was “deeply illiberal,” Burrill said. “For them, the touchstone of government competence was the absolute prioritization of balancing the budget. Everything else was secondary.”

When the provincial legislature reconvened this month for the first time in a year, Burrill’s party introduced legislation calling for mental health emergency teams and pushed for 10 paid sick days for all workers, improved child care services and a pause on clear-cutting of the province’s forests.

The Nova Scotia NDP has also been busy preparing for an election call that could come at any time.

It has nominated 24 candidates to date and more are “on the cusp” of being chosen, Burrill said. Of those already nominated, 19 are “women and gender-diverse people.”

While Burrill may be feeling optimistic, he and Progressive Conservative leader Tim Houston will likely face stiff headwinds in the next campaign.

Recent polling done by Narrative Research shows Nova Scotians are unlikely to vote for change any time soon.

Satisfaction with government — a key indicator, according to company CEO Margaret Brigley — currently stands at 76 per cent in Nova Scotia.

“We have never, in more than 20 years of tracking, seen a government not re-elected if their satisfaction level has been above 50 per cent,” she told the Sidebar.

The poll found early impressions of the new premier to be very favourable. And he is the runaway choice for preferred premier at 34 per cent, compared to 17 per cent for Houston and 13 per cent for Burrill. 

“It’s certainly a challenging position for all of the opposition parties to be in,” Brigley said of the halo effect that’s benefited provincial governments across the country during the pandemic. “This is not so much a mark against the opposition parties as it is support for what’s going on.”

Rankin is likely to focus on establishing his profile before prompting an election, she said. “He has no reason right now to do anything other than make his own mark and show that he’s managing it well.”

But the new premier should be careful about pushing too far into the fifth year of the government’s mandate.

“There’s risk in waiting too long,” Brigley said. “You’re on the crest of the wave. And there’s no question that recovery is going to be tough.”

As for Burrill, he knows the pandemic will dominate the next election. But he’s confident that gives the NDP a unique value proposition.

“My hope is that people will ask themselves which party, coming out of this defining COVID experience, actually offers us a path to get to something better,” he said.