NDP leadership bid shows Cullen not afraid to take risks

NDP MP Nathan Cullen says he's comfortable taking chances and that helps set him apart from his fellow candidates in the party's leadership race.

Nathan Cullen's campaign for the NDP leadership charts a less partisan path

NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen says the future of politics is less partisan and he proposes joint nominations with the Liberals and Greens in Conservative-held ridings in the next election. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Nathan Cullen has a prediction about the future of politics in this country, and for someone trying to get elected leader of a political party – the Official Opposition no less – it may sound a bit odd.  

"I think the party system is actually sometimes a throwback, it gets in the way of progress," Cullen said in an interview. It can lead to impasses in Parliament and an unwillingness to listen and, according to the 39-year-old NDP leadership contender, that's "not how the world actually works."  

"Politics somehow thinks it's special, and it's not. We should reflect Canadian values and I think it's a Canadian value to cooperate," said the MP for B.C.'s Skeena-Bulkley Valley.  

No, he is not advocating Canada abolish political parties or that any of them merge. "I like orange," Cullen says of the NDP's colour, and competition among parties is a good thing because it can lead to good ideas, he said.  

But, the "system has failed us" on issues such as climate change, and parties have made choices based more on politics than policy, said Cullen. He says Canadians want change.  

"I think Canadians like it when parties work together to get something done. And I think the future of politics is actually a less partisan future," he said.  

Cullen's push for people to drop partisan attitudes and for parties to cooperate more is what lies behind one of the more interesting ideas raised in the leadership contest so far.  

Joint nominations proposed

He proposes that in Conservative-held ridings, the NDP, Liberals and Greens nominate only one candidate between them. They would have a joint nomination contest and the winning candidate would run under his or her party's banner.  

Cullen admits his idea "irks" some people and he’s found himself on the defensive during leadership debates and on the campaign trail because of it.  

He said he's a proud New Democrat who will put his record of party loyalty up against anybody's, and he said his idea is what some ridings have been asking for and they should be given the choice.  

Some of Cullen's other proposals include: national referendums on voting reform (he supports mixed-member proportional representation) and the monarchy, abolishing the Senate, eliminating "perverse subsidies" for the oil and gas sectors, a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions and renegotiating NAFTA "to better protect farmers, workers and the environment."  

There are seven weeks left for Cullen to convince people to get on board his campaign before the leadership convention March 24.  

He said he's getting support from across Canada and the race has been rewarding and enjoyable, despite having to spend more time away from his 17-month-old twin boys.  

Cullen's list of endorsements isn't as long as some other candidates', but that's fine with him.

"I think the debates have become incredibly important," Cullen said. "I'm really comfortable with where I'm at."  

Cullen wants to change stereotypes

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, left, bumps elbows with Brian Topp and Paul Dewar after a leadership debate in Halifax in January. (Tim Krochak/Canadian Press)

Besides his charm and good looks, joked Cullen, there is something else setting him apart from the other seven candidates.

"I've shown I’m not adverse to risk. I'm comfortable taking chances ... I'm for changing stereotypes, I'm for challenging ideologies, I'm for challenging orthodoxy and being very comfortable about it," said Cullen.  

Before he got into politics in 2004, a career path he never thought he’d take, Cullen had his own consulting business and worked as a mediator. Perhaps it served as a prelude to the conciliatory tone he would later try to strike in Parliament.  

The Toronto native settled in British Columbia after working with various organizations in Africa and South America following university. He became fluent in Spanish but these days the second language he's speaking is French.  

Cullen believes he's well-received in Quebec and the NDP's key to maintaining the support it won there May 2 is "not rocket science." It's going to require the 58 Quebec MPs to spend a lot of time on the doorsteps and attending events in their ridings, according to Cullen.  

Winning over constituents not just in Quebec but nationally is part of Cullen's strategy to beat the Conservatives. Arguments with Tories in question period or in committee rooms aren’t keys to success, he says. As leader he would push beyond the Ottawa bubble and connect with people on the ground.  

That said, he's up for taking on Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House if he wins the leadership. "We're such different people," said Cullen, "It will be an exercise in contrast for sure."  

Cullen has no illusions about how his life will change if he becomes Official Opposition leader and knows the sacrifices it would mean for his wife and kids. He already spends 30 hours a week  travelling back and forth to Ottawa. But he said he does it because he loves his job.  

"It's a vocation, it’s a calling. You get to make important things happen and help people out."