HALIFAX — The provincial NDP in Nova Scotia has handily won a byelection in one of its Halifax strongholds in what one pollster says is an early test of the party's leftward shift.
Unofficial results for the riding of Halifax Needham showed New Democrat Lisa Roberts, a journalist and community organizer, finishing well ahead of Liberal Rod Wilson, a family physician in the city's north end.
Andy Arsenault, a retired RCMP officer running for the Progressive Conservatives, placed a distant third, while Green party candidate Thomas Trappenberg was fourth.
The area was held for 18 years by former NDP cabinet minister Maureen MacDonald, who was first elected in 1998 and re-elected in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013. She also served as interim party leader after the NDP were defeated in the 2013 provincial election.
Current NDP Leader Gary Burrill was elected in February, and some political observers have called the byelection an initial referendum on his leadership in a riding sympathetic to his party.
Pollster Don Mills of Corporate Research Associates said the win isn't surprising because byelections have lower turnouts and tend to favour incumbent parties able to get their vote to the polls.
However, he added that the comfortable margin of victory — with unofficial counts indicating Roberts took 2,519 votes to Wilson's 1,662 and Arsenault's 600 — is a sign that Burrill's message hasn't harmed the party.
"He (Burrill) brings a different approach to the NDP than (former NDP premier) Darrell Dexter did for sure. He's moved it back to the left from the centre. Obviously that didn't hurt the party in that riding," he said in a telephone interview.
Burrill, an ordained United Church minister, said in an interview the victory shows his focus on social justice issues such as child poverty and the creation of a $15 minimum wage is playing well with the public.
He said the party faced the challenge of a late summer byelection against a popular Liberal candidate, yet prevailed comfortably.
"This indicates that people really are registering that we have the right to a government that has something in its head other than cutting back," he said.
The party may also have benefited from the eruption of a controversy last week over the quality of nursing home food at a large facility in the riding.
The NDP had highlighted Liberal cuts to long-term care, claiming it has caused cuts to operating budgets.
Premier Stephen McNeil said his candidate took a good run at one of the NDP's strongest ridings, and he doesn't see the opposition party's win as a sign of discontent with the governing Liberals.
"I'm encouraged by the support we've been receiving across the province. ... We'll see what happens as we go forward," he said.
The NDP still only has six seats in the legislature, a massive reversal from their total when former premier Darrell Dexter swept to a majority government victory in 2009.
The Liberal government holds 34 seats, while the Progressive Conservative Opposition has 10 and there is one independent.
"It is a long road back and a long struggle before us, it's true," said Burrill of his party's longer term prospects.
"But in politics, the trajectory is awfully important and, with this byelection, we've established an upward trajectory."
Burrill sat as a member of the legislature in the Dexter government from 2009 until his defeat in 2013, and has been nominated to run in Halifax Chebucto in the next general election.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press
©2016 The Canadian Press
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