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To be the first jurisdiction where poverty is eliminated

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 9:37
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(Before It's News)

An interview with NDP leadership candidate Gary Burrill

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Gary Burrill is the second of the three NDP leadership candidates we interview. In 2009, Burrill became the first NDP MLA in Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley. He lost his seat in the 2013 general election that saw the Liberals take power. He is an ordained minister of the United Church, currently serving a congregation in Sydney.

HMC – How do you look back on the Dexter government? When did you begin to see signs that things were getting off the rails, and what did you do to correct the situation?

From the very outset, from our first budget which was in 2009, there was always a group of people who articulated together in the caucus the view that people had turned to us out of deepening financially distressing circumstances, and that we had to do something deeply of a piece with the idea of NDP, we had to do something boldly egalitarian, something quite striking to address income inadequacies and income inequities.  People had different ideas about what type of things we could do. My idea was that we had to do something dramatic and bold and singular about poverty.  

This view was expressed and pushed within our caucus from the very earliest days. The direction of our government was never without debate.

In my opinion the high water mark of our time in office was the 2010 budget. It certainly seemed at that time that the view of us who were advocating for bold egalitarian policies was being heard. That was the budget that provided for the transfer of around $20 million a year to households earning under $32 thousand through the affordable living tax credit. It was also the budget that introduced the fifth tax bracket, a new higher income tax for people making over $150 thousand.

And it was the budget that eliminated provincial income tax for seniors receiving the supplement.

And major egalitarian strides, I want to underline this too, were made throughout our time in office. For instance, the constituency I represented, Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, was much impacted by the Collaborative Emergency Centres.  This was a marvelous program which went a long way in overcoming disparities between rural and urban health care.

I also think the mental health strategy was a singular step forward, in the way it provided resources and set out a whole new series of fronts on which to move in terms of mental health and addiction recovery.

Despite the fact that I was always with the group within caucus that held that we must do something more bold in order to keep faith with the faith people had expressed in us, it is also my opinion that this government was the best government in my lifetime, and that Darrell Dexter was the best premier in a 100 years.

I don’t think that we failed to find a path. In that 2010 budget we established a very important path, with many major egalitarian innovations. The problem, and I want to articulate this with all the precision I can, was not that we failed to find a path, but that we failed to identify ourselves with the path we had found.

We identified ourselves rather with three things, and the third one was I think the most pronounced and problematic.   

We identified ourselves with the corporate project of Irving, through the ships start here initiative. We identified ourselves with the corporate project of Emera through the Muskrat Falls renewable energy project, but most troublingly  we deeply identified ourselves, in the public mind, with what is the core neoliberal mantra of back to balance. Our identification with that slogan meant that we in effect built a box around ourselves. And this box constrained us from going forward with the bold egalitarian social investments that would be required.

This is my core reading. That  the path was in fact discovered but we failed to identify ourselves with it, and thereby went down it too timidly. We were constrained by that neoliberal holy grail of a balanced budget. Within the constraints of that balanced budget we were able  o do a number of helpful intelligent things but we were not able to do the signature bold egalitarian moves that people needed from us at that time and need from us now.

HMC – How can the provincial NDP regain the confidence of voters? What should it do to rebuild trust with its members and progressive activists in general?  

The first part, how to regain a sense of the worthiness of the NDP project, I will address that later (in response to the third question). But the core answer to that question is by standing for something new and bold and taking a new direction. This has a number of social and economic and environmental dimensions in terms of what it is the party should stand for.

Let me try to address the question in terms of the democratic life of the party itself. How do we regain the confidence in terms of those people who have participated in various ways big and small in the NDP over the years?

There is reason why our party was called the New Democratic Party. There was an understanding, going back to the days of the CCF, that a party which stands for real egalitarian values and for justice must of its character be more deeply respectful and democratic.  It must stand for a truer democracy than exists in society in general and it must order itself in a more deeply democratic way than do its opponents.

I think that over recent years our party has developed in a way such that our internal democratic life does not really live up to its name. It is fair to say that there is a kind of comprehensive malaise that has crept into our democratic life.  

In any party that stands for social change you have the decision-making apparatus and mechanisms of the party, its electoral district associations, provincial council, and conventions, and then you have the political apparatus of the leader office and party office, and so on.  

There must be a balance between these two dimensions, and I think there is a consensus within the party that we got this balance wrong in recent years. A great deal of emphasis and vitality gravitated to the office of the leader,and when we were in government to the office of the premier.

Revitalization of the democratic processes begins with the understanding that the core unit of a political party devoted to social change is the local  electoral district association, meeting usually in people’s homes in communities across the province. That is the centre of the show. Not the caucus office, the leader’s office, the party office or the premier’s office. It is really important for us to take in the fact  that the electoral district association is not peripheral, not something where you get people to put up signs every four years.

The second part of the democratic deficit that has come to burden our party in recent years is a comprehensively inadequate attention to organization. I think that we need to devote ourselves with renewed focus and long term attention to the building of relationships at the level of local electoral district associations.

Two steps occur to me, neither is very dramatic. One is that we should develop an understanding that our leader is to meet with every electoral district association on a rotation that is never more than two years. It is a first step that actually would go quite a long way in deepening the organic connection between the different parts of our party.

The second step is so elementary that it might always seem not worth mentioning. But I think it would be a significant change for us if the very first thing that happens when somebody joins our party is that someone with some kind of elected authority calls that person and expresses appreciation and makes arrangements for that person to be personally accompanied to an electoral district association meeting in the area.

HMC – What are your political priorities?

We are in a new moment and it calls for a new direction. It is very important for us to recognize how deeply the situation has changed since we took government in 2009. That was before the occupy movement, if at that time  you were to mention the 1 percent and the 99 percent nobody would have had any idea what you were talking about.

It was also before the anti-austerity movement and before there was a kind of vocabulary for the idea that government has a worthy and noble calling, not merely to create more space for the agenda of the privileged.

These two movements have contributed to a new situation. We see it in the way the question of inequality has moved to the center of the discourse in America with the Bernie Sanders candidacy, and Jeremy Corbyn in the british Labour Party. And we have seen it in the federal election,  if anybody doubted that we are in a new moment we merely leeds to look there. The federal NDP defined itself in terms of its center right strand, its platform of fiscal rectitude and a commitment to balance the budget every single year. The Liberals understood that we are in a new situation, that public investment for a public purpose is no longer the anathema it had been during the deep dark Thatcherite Reaganite years.

In the core of this new moment, we need to address narrowing the income gap that has become so extreme, and re-widen the door of opportunity which have been closed increasingly.

First, narrowing the gap has to proceed both at the end of the 99 percent and the 1 percent. We need to continue down the path of the 2010 budget when we created the fifth income tax bracket  for those making over $150 thousand.  

At the level of the 99 percent we need to follow the push of the (Nova Scotia) Federation of Labour and the fight for 15 in general.

For me in a way what is most defining of what we must do is to commit the party to leading the country to be the first jurisdiction where poverty is eliminated. For me there is no more important or defining initiative.

In terms of widening the opportunities I am talking about extending funding of post secondary education to include tuition for a first degree certificate or diploma,  and instituting a program of retroactive debt forgiveness through the tax system. That’s how we begin to address in a significant and bold and defining way the terrible disenfranchisement of a generation that is the legacy of the neoliberal years.

We need to have a new environmental assessment process that will deepen the ability to participate and pass judgement  on potential projects for people in affected communities. We need to have a much wider range of projects that would require public hearings to take place. We need to deepen the democratic life of the province as a whole by finding mechanisms to determine what is the view of particular communities.  And I believe that we should have an environmental bill of rights that would guarantee democratic participation in decision making and access to information to make that participation effective.

I think it is important for us to come out of this leadership process having reacquired as a party our confidence in long-term egalitarian social investment. One thing that has diminished our effectiveness is that we have lost some of that confidence

When we say that there should be an anti-poverty program or that there should be debt forgiveness the voice of the right often responds that those things are not legitimate, because how are we going to pay for this.

During the last decades this barren neoliberal thinking has dominated the public discourse. We need to respond that it’s not a question of how we are going to pay for it, but when. Every credible economist who has studied this question over the last ten years or so has pointed out that we already pay for all the negative consequences of poverty and inequality. We pay for it in the health care system, the judicial system, and education.

We need to re-acquire our egalitarian confidence and say that we believe in paying up front, rather than paying after everything is wrecked. We understand that means making investments. I think we need to answer, yes, investment of its nature requires debt, but if you make long term investments in equity and opportunity, than these investments begin to pay the people back in the space of a generation.  

Edited for clarity and length

See also: We lost sight of who we are. An interview with NDP leadership candidate Lenore Zann

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert


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