Nathan Cullen sees cooperation, pragmatism as recipe for success

Calls himself a pro-business New Democrat, admires Gary Doer

In an NDP leadership campaign where disagreement has been rare and debate uncharacteristically tame, Nathan Cullen is committed to shaking things up.
The 39-year-old has been a member of Parliament for the British Columbia riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley since 2004 and prides himself on being the only NDP leadership candidate who has beaten a Conservative at the riding level.
Cullen, who operated a small business before entering politics, has proposed a controversial cooperation strategy with the Liberal and Green parties, whereby joint nominations will be held to select only one progressive candidate in ridings where there is a Conservative incumbent.
For the last several weeks, The Uniter has been interviewing NDP leadership candidates in the lead-up to the March 23-24 leadership convention, to be held in Toronto. Below is the abridged transcript of our interview with Nathan Cullen.

The Uniter: You’re the only candidate running on a platform that includes a measure of electoral cooperation with other parties. Could you distill your arguments down and describe how that cooperation will play out?

I think it would play out very well. I think it would give us a progressive government in the country that would reflect the majority of progressive values. I think the minority government of Stephen Harper is not reflective of who we are as a nation and the more and more ideologically conservative thinking he pushes, the more people realize that. I think where this is headed is that we have a less partisan world in front of us. I think it’s difficult for people who are immersed in party politics to realize, but people care about issues more than they care about parties generally speaking. I’m a proud New Democrat but I also believe that we’re at our best when we work with others. So why not work with others to get something done?

And how would this work on the ground, in terms of its structure?

There’s two essential pre-conditions. One is that it is a Conservative held seat. The other is that local New Democrats agree to hold a joint nomination meeting (with the Liberals and Greens). It is not a decision made by the party brass, it’s made by the people who know the riding best and those are the people on the ground.

How would you respond to the notion that this is a slippery slope to a merger between the New Democrats and the Liberals?

It doesn’t concern me at all. I actually don’t get that question at all. There was no slippery slope when we worked with Liberals to get the 2005 budget accomplished. There was no slippery slope when we created the employment insurance program and national public health care; those were both things we had to do together. I think for progressive voters, they just want to see a progressive option, they want to see that their values on the environment, on affordable child care and quality of life are reflected. That’s what they’re focused on so let’s speak to the voters, not just to the parties, so I think it’s respectful.

How would you counter a potential attack from the Conservatives about a coalition?

Well, I don’t think the antidote to fear mongering is more fear. I think the antidote to fear mongering is more hope and a pragmatic hope that says we’re here to get something done. Politics, for me, is a pragmatic manifestation of my hopes and my values. I’m not here for a debating society, I’m here to see things get better. So Stephen Harper is going to fear monger no matter what option you are going to put out, right? Fear only works for so long. You can only keep hitting the fear button over and over again until people start becoming immune to it and I think that day is coming sooner rather than later.

In an interview with the Toronto Star editorial board, you mentioned that many New Democrats misunderstood what happened for the NDP in Quebec on May 2. How have they misunderstood it and what really happened?

It was an incredible alignment of stars. The Quebec voters chose a progressive, federalist option for the first time in a generation. The debate changed. We had an incredibly charismatic and popular leader in Quebec and it would be a mistake to think that you just take the same formula and repeat in Western Canada, let’s say. Our opponents in Western Canada are not the Bloc, in Western Canada, they’re Conservatives. And so you can’t just roll out the same game plan and say what we did in Quebec we do in the rest of the country and that’s it. The scenario is totally different and, being the only (leadership) candidate who beat a Conservative to get into the House of Commons, I understand what it takes to take on Conservatives and it’s a different conversation than it is in Quebec, so let’s just make sure we take the right lessons away from the incredible showing on May 2 in Quebec.

What does it take to beat a Conservative?

Well, you have to appeal to values that we hold in common, even with some Conservative voters. So, whether it’s protecting the family farm or the local street, the common held values that we use in our approach to politics is what has made us so successful in B.C. It’s about being able to talk about business in a comfortable way. You really have to find the issues that migrate across traditional political lines, I think it’s counter to the wedge politics that the prime minister and his party practice and to some success but to the detriment of the country.

But how would you hold onto seats in Quebec, where your opponents are largely not Conservatives?

Well, we have a great advantage right now in Quebec. The NDP are known for many things, but one of those things is that, when we win a seat, we tend to hold onto it and that’s because we’re very, very dedicated to the political work that’s required. I think what Quebec wants to know is that, having extended their hand to the rest of country in the last election, that they country is willing respond in kind and I think that it actually supports my notion of doing politics differently throughout Canada is actually a clear response to that effort in Quebec. That we’re willing to show an equal resolve to making sure there isn’t a Conservative government come 2015 and making sure that the values we actually hold as Canadians are better reflected and, for the first time, truly reflected, in our federal government.

I think Canada is a series of regional elections, where you try to find a consistent theme but also honour the regional differences that are obvious and real to anyone who has spent time in this country.

There’s been some recent polling in Quebec that shows the NDP being down, and there was the defection of Lise St-Denis to the Liberals, so was it potentially a mistake to keep the NDP leadership candidates on the backbench during this campaign?

When you look through the history of any party’s campaign, there’s a need to make sure that the candidates are not involved in the day-to-day work of Parliament and not getting any particular favours because they are parliamentarians so I think the party was right to do that. I also think that in three and a half years time, the memories of the first six or eight months of parliament will have long faded. A week is a lifetime in politics, well, three and a half years is incredibly long. When we go into the next election, we will be reminding people of the kind of destructive actions this government took in its first months in office as a majority and things will not improve if Canadians give them a second majority mandate, which I don’t believe they will.

How would your approach to federalism and intergovernmental relations differ from that of prime minister Harper’s “open federalism,” the traditional Liberal approach or the approach of the other leadership candidates?

Well, I’m not willing to sacrifice public health care for having good relationships with the provinces, for example. I think there is a real danger in suggesting that every province gets to do whatever it is whenever they want to when it comes to some fundamental Canadian values and I think that public medicine is a fundamental Canadian value.

What would be the other fundamental Canadian values in terms of contrasting your position with Peggy Nash (who made the statement about private health care in Quebec)...

Certainly contrasting it with the current government, it would be a position of respect rather than a dictatorial style, which is what we’ve seen on the crime legislation, which is what we’ve seen on the health care conversations. I think the my way or the highway approach to federalism is a bully tactic that doesn’t actually serve Canada very well. You have to respect the provinces and you have to respect their needs and when you enforce things that have great impact on them you should show them the respect to actually consult with them, as opposed to what happens right now. The Harper government wants to move a crime bill that will cost the provinces billions of dollars and, not only do they not send any of the money down with them, they don’t even bother asking them.

And that’s a sure fire way to break up a country. The insults towards Quebec in particular have been significant. It’s almost like the government is engaged in a process where they look week-to-week to find another thing that they can use to upset Quebecers and this is playing with fire. I don’t think if folks in Manitoba saw a government that was constantly doing this they would feel too encouraged about the state of the nation. I just don’t understand why a Canadian prime minister thinks its part of his job description to continually play one part of the country off against the other. It shows contempt, actually. I think it’s dangerous and very destructive.

Again, in your interview with the Toronto Star you mentioned that you admire (former Manitoba premier) Gary Doer’s approach to NDP politics. How do you square that more moderate approach with some of the broader progressive reforms proposed by the federal party, like electoral reform and Senate abolition?

Well, the Senate wasn’t in Gary’s purview and I think what Gary was able to do was establish a lot of that common ground that I see between people who want to know that their government will create a healthy business environment so people can create private wealth and jobs and balancing that with the services that Canadians need. You can’t simply say, as some have said in this race, that taxing the rich is the solution to all our problems. It’s not true. We can’t pay for all the services that we need through that vehicle, you actually need a healthy economy and we have plans for a much healthier and greener economy and the government can play a productive role in that.

If the only solution you have is a tax cut, then every problem they come to solve with a tax cut. And it doesn’t actually work. I’m one of the few candidates who was in business before politics and I know, without a shadow of doubt, that the primary thing businesses need are customers. And to have customers you need an economy that is actually working and we are not adding value to our natural resources, which has been since forever the foundation of the Canadian economy. And you see it with these pipelines, you see it with the raw export of all of our resources. It’s a road to nowhere. You can’t keep doing it and expect to have a manufacturing base if all you are is a petro economy.

How do you view Brian Topp’s tax proposals and how would yours differ from those?

I think the question of people paying their fair share is very important. We have a tax rate that is less than half of what it is for businesses in the United States so the tab for public health care is being picked up by the middle class, essentially. We think that’s wrong, we think the massive oil profits that have been rolling in have been concentrated in a few hands and the manufacturing sector has been getting hammered. The value added sector needs a little bit more support so I think re-balancing the tax system, so that it’s not just the one per cent that are happy come tax day every year, but that we share the burden a little bit and make sure that everybody is paying a little bit to keep this country strong.

And when you talk about higher taxes for oil and gas companies (Cullen will raise corporate tax rates up to 20 per cent and oil and gas to 25 per cent), how do you feel about a carbon tax as a way of addressing environmental issues?

I’m more of a cap-and-trade kind of guy. I think it’s a much more accurate assessment of full cost but, again, the point of the exercise is putting a price on carbon and doing some real accounting of the full cost of using this carbon and putting it in the atmosphere. We can’t just keep paying forward this bill and expect future generations to be happy with us. They’re not going to be. We need to get at this now. This was crisis in 2005 and we haven’t done anything about it since. How is it not even more of a crisis now? The national media aren’t talking much about it but climate change doesn’t just go away because they’re not talking about it.

In terms of the technique, Canada is one of the few country’s in the world that has for so long obsessed over the actual mechanism. Most country’s that care about this issue have gotten on with the job and used a variety of tools to get there.

What would those variety of tools be for you?

We’ve talked about winding down raw bitumen exports to zero, we’ve talked about a cap and trade system that starts to find and enable the solutions. You can’t simply make emitters pay without giving them an out, no way to avoid the penalty, and that also happens to be fantastic for the economy. Often in politics you search for those win-wins and they’re relatively rare. This happens to be something that is a win-win solution so why wouldn’t you use it?

First you need to start with a government that believes that climate change is real and believes that we should do something about it, that’s your first step. We have a government right now that are deniers of science and a government that has intentionally made themselves less intelligent by shutting down science and ignoring evidence, like the (cancellation of the long form) census.

My last question is related to a column by Lawrence Martin in the Globe and Mail, who argued that a possible alliance could be created between yourself and Thomas Mulciar at the leadership convention since you expressed admiration of Mulcair and speculated about a Brian Topp and Peggy Nash alliance…

Well, let me give you the context of that Lawrence Martin interview because he asked me for my opinion of all the candidates, which I did, and he asked me if I like Tom, which I do, and you’ll notice that the quotations in that article don’t go around the words where he is talking about alliance at the convention. I haven’t expressed it ever, I haven’t had any of those conversations nor has my campaign. So it’s a bit of extrapolation when people start to guess about candidates teaming up with other candidates. I was asked if I could see an alliance between two candidates, which is possible but I haven’t been involved in any of those conversations, so it’s really looking for a story that isn’t there.

And you didn’t speculate about a Peggy Nash and Brian Topp alliance at all?

He asked me about different combinations and asked me whether that was a possibility and I said ‘sure, I guess.’ Even since then, I’ve seen Peggy quite purposely attack Brian so it goes to show how much I know about how things might work. I think the campaigns are still spending most of their times trying to distinguish themselves and Brian’s campaign has been in a stall pattern for some time so he might get quite a bit more pointed in his recriminations of others. I made the mistake of expressing my admiration for some candidates and saying that alliances are possible but I just haven’t seen it, I don’t know about alliances and we haven’t participated.

Published in Volume 66, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 22, 2012)

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