Q&A: Nathan Cullen

The NDP’s new House leader and I chatted on Tuesday about decorum, Question Period reform and the budget implementation act.

Q: On this issue of decorum, because it gets so bogged down in what people mean by that, are you talking about heckling? Are you talking about comments made during questions, during answers? Are you talking about personal attacks? When you talk about decorum, what do you mean?

A:Yeah, all these things are rolled into one. I wanted to start with what I hoped was the easiest piece, which is when groups of MPs refuse to be quiet, where the Speaker has asked them a couple times and they’re just carrying on like a bunch of drunken frat boys. That we publicly give the Speaker the authority to start taking questions away as a form of punishment. Because one group of MPs will goad another group into it and then soon you just have total chaos. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a hard-hitting question, there’s nothing wrong with the odd comment coming from a member. Sometimes they’re very funny. I mean a Conservative yesterday said, I’m going to hold my breath until the Liberal party gets better, and of course there was some back and forth across the aisle with me and Baird or the leader, because it was a funny thing to say, right? Because he’s going to hold his breath forever and that’s the joke. I’m not looking to cut into that. That actually helps relationships. What we’re talking about is when this sort of mob mentality takes over. You tend to get those really personal attacks and insults in those moments. So I think one leads to the other, but I’m not presenting this as a silver bullet. I think this is a culture that we’ve created and to shift it we need to start to change the trend lines.

Q: Are you specifically referring to, for instance the Veterans Affairs Minister today complained about the Liberals and there have been complaints made about the Liberals  in the House, it seems, periodically. Is that the sort of behaviour you’re talking about?

A: No, I think everyone’s done it, right? Perhaps not typically, I don’t claim any righteousness on this. I’m not saying that we’re perfect. And we have improvements to make. Everyone’s done it. And it’s not particular to any group. But I’m hoping that there is actually a, well, near-silent majority of MPs who don’t like it and want it to be better. It’s not a very inviting place to folks who are interested in maybe getting into politics. And it doesn’t say much for the respect we have for one another when that’s what it looks like. It goes up and down, I would say. There are some days that are better than others. Today started well and then went badly and who knows what tomorrow will be like? The Speaker’s cut a few people off, in statements, and been congratulated roundly by members in the House. I think we just need more of that. I think when we slide over into behaviour that we would never, ever do outside of the House of Commons, we need to be reminded of who we represent.

Q: And so your hope is that he’ll take questions away from parties?

A: Yeah, it’s sort of like a soccer referee. You get a warning and you want to be fair. But I think that will allow for more self policing. I think it’ll allow for, within parties, if you lose a question because I’m being loud, you and I are likely going to have a conversation, right? Because I’ve just caused you harm or the party was trying to get up on an issue and now they can’t because there’s three or four MPs or more who just can’t control themselves. It can’t all be in the hands of the Speaker, it has to be in the leadership of each party. Hope over experience, eh? You keep trying these things. I’ve been a bit disappointed. There’s a bit of cynicism on this coming from some of the other leadership spokespeople that are saying, Well, until the NDP is perfect you shouldn’t say anything. And it’s like, well, if we’re waiting for a party to be perfect before we have a decent conversation in the House of Commons, it’ll never happen. Like, either you’re into changing things or you’re not, you’re satisfied.

Q: Not to now cast aspersions on the NDP, but to take one example from yesterday and compare it to today, has for instance Charlie Angus been told not to refer to Tony Clement as the Muskoka minister anymore?

A: No. I mean, sometimes these things are also funny. I don’t mind humour. It can make your point in different ways. He does happen to be from Muskoka, by the way. The government took great offence to naming part of the fellow’s riding, I don’t know why, but regardless, I think they’re feeling the insinuation that he may be only the minister of Muskoka. I mean, I think there’s a line out there. And I think it’s very subjective. And difficult. I’m not looking to be the language cop, either. But we also know when the place is out of control. When the Speaker is on his feet for half of Question Period. And I think there’s a carryover effect, I really do. If you’re in a screaming match with somebody, how are you meant to go to the committee that you have in 20 minutes and try to work together? It’s not going to happen.

Q: Michael Chong, last Parliament, put those substantial QP reforms before the House. Is there any interest in pursuing anything like that?

A: I have some interest. I’m open to suggestions. Not just from MPs, but from Canadians. This only works, we only get better at this, if Canadians care. And express themselves to MPs from all sides. So in terms of the different reforms Michael suggested, I thought some of them were very interesting. I don’t have a mandate from my party yet to go out and pursue this or that. But I want to be explicit that we’re open to the conversation.

Q: Moving on to the other matter of the budget bill, I think concerns have been raised on all sides of the opposition about it. Is there anything the NDP is planning to do about it?

A: We’re looking at options. I mean, the government is absolutely abusing its power on this and are showing that they have no faith in their policies because they’re burying them into a budget, which is not how a budget is supposed to work at all. If they were confident, these would all be stand alone conversations. But they’re not. It’s not easy, with a majority that is comfortable abusing their power, but it is something that we have to consider. And we’ll consider any option that we can. Because these are some fundamental changes. Profound effects on our quality of life and environment. As somebody who is directly impacted by one of these changes, in terms of the place I represent, this thing might as well be called the pipeline bill because it’s crafted at every level to ensure that the public and the science can’t stop pipelines from happening.

Q: What can you do?

A: It seems that with the unbridled power that the majority has given this party, they’re just so easy to use it and thinking that if they can get away with it in Parliament, by the way our Parliament is structured, then they should just do it. But there’s this other group out there called Canadians who didn’t give these guys a mandate to do these things. So what can we do? Certainly there’s work in the House, but a great deal of what we need to do is outside of Parliament, on social media, in town halls. And there is obviously a strategy coming from us to warn people about what’s coming. Because we see these things, as destructive as the budget was, this supplemental piece, the implementation act is as bad or worse because the effects are so long term. They cut a service here or they misplace government spending there, you know some of those effects are over a year. These are 50, 100 year implications.

Q: Is the NDP prepared to commit to not using omnibus legislation were it in government?

A: Omnibus is a really broad thing, right? Sometimes you have three pieces of crime legislation you put into one and that’s an omnibus. I think our commitment to being transparent about what we’re doing and using appropriate tools to do it and not hiding things is a a commitment that we have. You can’t just blanket statement say, we don’t do omnibus, because there’s going to be moments where it’s perfectly right to do it and actually better for public policy. Three things are connected so you put them in one so the conversation is held with the same witnesses, not three separate times, you know what I mean?

Q: But could you move back to the days when the budget bill was—

A: A budget bill?

Q: Yeah, 12 pages.

A: Well, let’s put it this way, we’ve offered enough scathing criticism over this that it would be hard for us to ever adopt these Conservative tactics.