A wineskin full of quips: NDP leader has drawn on his preacher skills to skewer opponents

·6 min read
Gary Burrill answers questions from reporters in the foyer at Province House.  (Jean LaRoche/CBC - image credit)
Gary Burrill answers questions from reporters in the foyer at Province House. (Jean LaRoche/CBC - image credit)

Whenever Gary Burrill steps aside for someone else to take his place as leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party, the preacher-turned-politician will shift from a leading role to part of the supporting cast in caucus.

Burrill announced this week he would be stepping away from the job. But he will remain until his party can select his replacement.

It's a change that will likely mean fewer people will be treated to his signature turns of phrase, which have become known as Burrill-isms.

A United Church minister by profession, the 66-year-old MLA for Halifax Chebucto has elicited more than his fair share of smiles, chuckles and guffaws from reporters and political staffers for some of his unconventional public comments and observations.

Burrill often earned some latitude in the media for his sometimes lengthy or roundabout answers to questions.

That's because Burrill knew the power of a good punchline, even if the lead-in took longer than normal to deliver, and travelled a circuitous route.

Jean LaRoche/CBC
Jean LaRoche/CBC

Over the years, he has accused governments of "Judy-Garland-somewhere-over-the-rainbow economics" and called a budget a "dumpster full of disappointment."

He once called a Speech from the Throne an "empty piece of nothingness" and described government as a "woodpile full of weasels" when it comes to openness.

Reporters didn't always know where Burrill was leading them when he started to speak.

In an interview with CBC News, Burrill said his father taught him his lifelong love of words and writing.

Fred Burrill, also a United Church minister, was a powerful influence on his son. Fred Burrill preached throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick over 43 years,

"My father lived his life within the discipline of the homiletic craft, within the discipline of the sermon, and the discipline of the word and I was entirely raised in that environment and I lived my life in the discipline of the craft of words although in a different way," said Gary Burrill.

Before following in his father's footsteps as a preacher, Burrill was a writer and editor for New Maritimes, a magazine he described as a "lefty" publication that existed in the 1980s and '90s.

That experience solidified Burrill's love of language and his constant search for a clever turn of phrase or a clear and concise way to get his ideas across.

"I don't really ever stop thinking about how to get across what I'm in the process of thinking my way through," said Burrill. "I think that's part of the discipline and the craft of the preacher."

Jean LaRoche/CBC
Jean LaRoche/CBC

According to Burrill, political speech is like preaching, but "the form is different" in politics.

He said his stepfather-in-law told him he would be "preaching the other way" when he became a politician.

A sometimes gregarious storyteller, Burrill has also tapped into reminiscences from his youth to take a shot at a political opponent.

Last spring, when the Nova Scotia Liberal Party published a political ad featuring Premier Iain Rankin touting the government's record on the pandemic, Burrill quipped: "Years ago there used to be a wrestler in the Atlantic Grand Prix circuit called 'No Class' Bobby Bass, so I think Bobby's alive and well."

The reference was gleaned from his personal experience with wrestling and wrestlers during his teens.

"I was kinda brought up around Bobby Bass because the Grand Prix wrestlers used to stay in the Barker Hotel which was next door to where I lived in the east end of Moncton when I went to high school."

The NDP's transition to a new leader could take a year.

When a reporter suggested it was a long goodbye, Burrill was quick to say it isn't goodbye at all, but only a change.

"I'm not retiring, I'm not quitting," he said.

But in light of that change, CBC News has compiled some Burrill-isms from the past year.

Nov. 12, 2020: Stephen McNeil prorogues the House to avoid a fall sitting

"What they're really doing, I think, is putting a big banner up over themselves and saying, 'Hey, look at us, we've run out of ideas."

March 8, 2021: Speaking about the pre-election period

"They're in the ninth inning of a doubleheader in terms of their mandate. And [that's the] ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader."

March 9, 2021: Commenting on Rankin government's first Throne Speech

"You wanna be careful when you pour new wine into old wineskins cause often you end up with a mess. So we've got a lot of new wine here, an office of this and inclusion of that and equity of something else, but we also have an old-wineskin set of many troubling assumptions."

March 24, 2021: On Liberals "gutting" their own Biodiversity Act

"If there's one place in the world where species loss is not taking place, there's a new species of invertebrate, the Nova Scotia Liberal who apparently is a species who doesn't have enough spine to have the courage of its environmental convictions."

March 25, 2021: Budget reaction

"I think what we have here in the budget, to a great extent, is a kind of finger foods on a napkin in areas where we really need to see the meal on the plate."

"I think that the government is very good at writing the menu. They've got all the right words for the menu. They've got the right vocabulary for the menu. Where we find them short is puttin' the meal on the plate."

April 14, 2021: On the changes the Liberals made to their own Biodiversity Act in the face of industry lobbying and criticism:

"It is less like the bill received amendment and more like the bill received amputation."

April 19, 2021: During budget debate at Province House

"With an economy that is being held together, as ours is today, in effect by the chicken wire of the wage subsidy. To look at the economy of Nova Scotia and say, as this government is saying with this budget, 'Ohhh, that looks like a good place to take out $209 million. I don't think so, Mister Speaker!"

Oct 12, 2021: Assessment of Tim Houston government's first Throne Speech

"Nothing times nothing times nothing — nothing."

Oct 13, 2021: Houston government's decision to set mid-July election date

"Of the list of possible reasonable, helpful dates for a fixed election, the middle of July would be about number 37."

Nov. 2, 2021: On delays getting Lahey Review implemented

"The poor old Lahey Review, if it were a person it would be going around on a walker, it'd be getting kind of wrinkly,"

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