Q&A: Nathan Cullen - Macleans.ca

Q&A: Nathan Cullen

The NDP leadership candidate on joint nominations the ‘nasty things’ Stephen Harper has in store for Canada


As part of our coverage of the NDP leadership race, we’ll be running interviews with the contenders. First up, Nathan Cullen. We chatted last week.

Q. So I wanted to start with something you said after the debate on Sunday. You made some comment about “doubling down” on your joint nomination proposal … What did you mean by that?

A. Especially early on in this race, there were a number of New Democrats that said, ‘Boy, I like you a lot, but this joint nomination thing is hard for me to get around, you know, I might be interested, but it’s just hard to comprehend.’ Can you nuance it, essentially. Can you soften it? And so over Christmas, we had a couple days and I thought about it. And I can’t. I believe in the policy, I think it’s a good one, it’s certainly worth consideration. And, increasingly, those same folks that expressed hesitation are saying, ‘You know what, the more bad things Harper does, the more it confirms the need to put everything on the table.’ So this is one of those things on the table. So I’m noticing a shift just within the body politic and I also don’t want to be a weathervane politician, trying to bend and guess where the voters are going to be and guess what the people want to hear.

Q. Do you find the support amongst New Democrats is increasing for it? Following you on Twitter I get the sense that it’s a lot of people saying they’re registering for the party for the first time to support you.

A. A good campaign would do both, right? … That’s probably the interesting thing about our campaign: there’s no big institutional group behind it. There’s not a big union sign up behind me or any large natural political group driving people to our campaign. It’s people coming to our campaign. Those people that are getting engaged are at a much more serious and profound level than people who just become instant members for the sake of it. We’re finding it’s also within those conversations that are traditionally New Democrat on the web that people are very much softening their stance. The same commentators that two months ago said this was a line in the sand or it’s not an option are now saying, ‘Well, it at least should be considered, I still don’t love it, but it should be considered.’ And that’s the progression of new thinking. I didn’t expect that I would come out with this policy and everybody would fall over themselves and say, ‘We were wrong all these years, Cullen’s right and we need to make this change today.’ I don’t know about you, but most people, when they’re asked to consider something different take a little bit of time with it. So the length of the race has actually really aided us in our ability to communicate the policy clearly and also give people time to think about what it is that I’m actually proposing.

Q. To take one criticism, Brian Topp says, “if we had made arrangements like this in the last election, based on the results from the one before it, we would never have had that result in the province of Quebec.” How do you respond to that?

A. I didn’t make the proposal before. The proposal is now. And I don’t look backwards to try to figure out what to do next. I look forward. And a majority Stephen Harper government and all of the nasty things he’s proposing for this country, have given people a certain clarity of action. Brian knows better. He’s smarter than that. Trying to apply new proposals in hindsight doesn’t make any sense because the proposal’s for now and for the future. That has come up and when I tell people, ‘Yeah and I didn’t propose it then, I wouldn’t have proposed it then, I propose it now,’ people say, ‘oh, okay.’

Q. I guess his larger point would possibly be that you may cutting off victories that you just wouldn’t expect to have.

A. Yeah, but at the foundation of this idea, the decision is being made by the people who understand best where those possibilities exist. It’s not some little group of backroom guys in Ottawa deciding the map, deciding who gets to run and who doesn’t, it goes right out to the membership. And I think that’s actually causing some people consternation. I’m talking about shifting power away from the centre, away from the leader’s office, away from the party brass and out to the membership. And I’ve also talked about distributing the resources of the leader’s office—it’s way too concentrated right now in official Ottawa. And our membership are hungry to have more resources out in the field. I think it’s something the Conservatives actually did well. They tended to decentralize their workers and their support. I don’t think we’re going to win the next election within that square mile of Parliament. It’s going to be out in the places that do the voting.

Q. Did you know when you proposed this that this would become the signature issue for you? That this would dominate your campaign?

A. No. It’s a means to an end. I’m not married to the details. I believe in the policy, I believe in the approach, but it’s the end that I care about. It’s all those issues that I’ve worked on for years that matter most to me. I didn’t get into the race for this proposal, but it’s obviously provocative. It’s been interesting to engage. And it also opens up completely new doors. As you scan through social media, you’re seeing them. Someone asked us, ‘Do you have a team of social media people who are peppering all the sites?’ We are not that kind of campaign. We don’t have those sort of resources. This has to be natural.

Q. Do you think you can win this race though with that idea?

A. Yeah. Not that it’s a requirement, but for my kind of leadership and the proposals that I would want to put to this party, I need a mandate that says this organization, this community, is open to new ideas. And not just saying new politics, but they actually are. People need to know what kind of leader they are going to get. And I will challenge our own thinking, I will challenge the thinking of the government. So if people aren’t open to new ideas then they shouldn’t vote for me. If people want to stay in a 1972 New Democrat, then they should vote for somebody else because that’s not who I am. I’m not of that generation of progressive people. I’m not of that generation of New Democrats. I believe that there are a few sacred things, but you keep that list very short. Because the more that list grows to include everything, the harder it is for you to get elected and actually make any of the change that you want to make. I was with the Toronto Star ed board yesterday and they asked me, ‘Are you pro-business?’ And it’s like, well, I’m a former businessman, yeah, I’m pro business. And it’s interesting that they even had to ask the question. Because they’re viewing the New Democrats circa 1970 and I’m not one of them. I’m looking forward.

Q. How big of a spectre in this race is Stephen Harper? It seems to me that one of the primary questions is ‘Can we see this person standing toe-to-toe with Harper?’

A. That’s a natural question, of course, because that’s what’s going to happen—you’re going to go against this particular person. I’m a bit cautious of it. I think consuming ourselves with Stephen Harper definitely consumes us in the negative, because we’re talking about all of the bad things happening. And it also makes it about him and I want to make it about us. We have had this great breakthrough, we are celebrating what our last leader did for us and we are thinking about the future. That should be inherently about us and not them. But it’s in this context where a lot of bad stuff’s going on. So it’s hard for someone like me, when I’m looking at the Enbridge pipeline, it’s hard for me to not to invoke what’s happening in my riding and to the people that I care about when talking about leadership. And it will be a part of my leadership, that you just don’t get to do this to Canadians. So that happens. But I think there is a note of caution, that if all it feels like is a complete focus on him and a fixation on him, then we miss more of the opportunities to talk about us.

Q. What do you make of Brian Topp’s tax proposals?

A. It’s got too much of a hint of silver bullet to it. If you do this, then you get to pay for all those social programs. We’ll release our tax plan in a couple weeks, but we’ve decided to also talk about, very much, the need to have wealth generated so you can have a vibrant economy. That’s what ultimately pays for it. Do we need a more fair tax system? Sure. Mitt Romney, according to the Post, would pay less taxes here than he does in the States. You look at that and you go, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong.’ Where billionaires in the U.S. have a tougher time of it than billionaires in Canada. But let’s not have an eat the rich approach to politics in the 21st century. You’ve got to be able to talk with credibility about how it is that you grow a vibrant and sustainable economy.

Q. Do you see other major differences, policy wise, between you and some of the other candidates?

A. I’m the only one that seems to be talking about energy right now, which I think is the absolute elephant in the room for the Canadian and global economy … You know what I’m waiting for from the other candidates is the path to victory. I don’t need to know riding-by-riding, but I need to have that sense that, ‘Okay, this is where we are and this is how we get those seats.’ Some candidates are talking about winning every seat in Quebec and it’s like, ‘Well guys, that’s not a strategy.’ It’s never been done, that would be quite an unusual thing … so let’s talk about where it is that we go from A to B. I want to know that. I want to know that as a New Democrat. I want to know that as a contestant in the race. I’ve talked about one. It’s had some controversy, but it’s also possible. It’s very possible.

Q. One of the things you’ve said is talking about being the practical candidate. Aside from the joint nomination idea, are there three things that epitomize that to you?

A. A lot of this has got to be record … how I’ve been in Parliament. I feel good about my ability to work with others and get something done. I mean, I was on the phone with two Conservative ministers yesterday, talking about Burns Lake, talking about how we’re going to get some help in there and some support … I’ve been really good at pulling money into my riding. I’ve been able to ensure that a place that’s been hard hit economically has been able to be one of the most successful places in the country for receiving help from government. So that’s important to me. Getting more votes than anybody ever has in Skeena means that I’m not just drawing from a New Democratic pool, I have a pretty broad appeal. There’s certain projects that I’m really proud of that we pulled off. I don’t come at things with such deep ideology as to not be able to listen to people.

Q. What the NDP has done over the last seven years, in terms of working with other parties, in terms of broadening its message out, do you want to be an extension of that?

A. It’s why I joined. When I saw this party nominate and elect Jack and he talked about proposal, not just opposing, when he talked about pragmatism, all of those things spoke to me. It spoke to me of change. And not just winning debating contests and being the so-called conscious of Parliament. This is a short life we have and you want to make sure that everyday you’re spending it getting something good done. And that only happens if you’re extremely focused. Especially in politics, where you can get wrapped up in all sorts of minutiae of debates.