April 12, 2013 2:01 pm
Updated: April 12, 2013 3:58 pm

Hoping for a conversation: lunch with NDP MP Nathan Cullen

Nathan Cullen, NDP MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley speaks to reporters at the site of the proposed Enbridge bitumen terminal on Douglas Channel, south of Kitimat, B.C., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Members of the B.C. federal NDP caucus are on tour of development sites in northwestern British Columbia.

Robin Rowland/The Canadian Press

Nathan Cullen has ordered a beer. It is 12:45 p.m. and it is not the weekend.

But it is break week in the House of Commons, and the NDP House leader has been curious about the newly-open 3 Brewers restaurant a block from Parliament Hill.

No. He doesn’t do this often.

“The next thing I’m about to do is TV,” says Cullen, clean shaven on both his face and head, wearing a grey suit, blue tie and striped blue and white shirt.

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“I’m not a great drinker,” he says, sipping an amber pint, “even though I’m predominantly Irish.”

The 40-year-old MP is the kind of politician who’ll casually mention sex within the first two minutes – he was talking about a friend – and isn’t ashamed to admit he was out in public wearing jogging pants the other day.

He is friendly, to be sure – offering a slice of his Alsatian chicken flatbread dish called Flammekueches, which he took the liberty of mispronouncing several times.

But can also be flippant. Exhibit A, his comments about Liberal leadership frontrunner Justin Trudeau.

“I take phenomena totally seriously. It’s a sugar high. There’s not a lot of substance behind it. We could have had chocolate cake, felt like lunch was awesome and in about an hour…” he says.

“I have two-and-a-half-year-old twins, and you can just watch the sugar, right. And so it depends on whether the high of getting my photo taken with Justin actually means that someone is going to put a lawn sign up in the middle of February. Those are totally different things.”

If NDP leader Thomas Mulcair plays the role of the party’s powerful patriarch, then Cullen is the loveable little brother.

“We need to become more collegial, we need to become more reasonable…to encourage people to believe that voting actually matters and that this can be a place that solves problems,” he says.

But the former mediator who represents Skeena—Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia is serious about democracy.

Cullen has of late been taking on the heady task of reforming Parliament.

He is his party’s leading voice on the Mark Warawa affair – the Conservative backbencher with an abortion-related motion whose party forbid him to speak about it during a member’s statement in the House.

The backbencher then brought a point of privilege to Speaker Andrew Scheer, who is expected to rule on the matter when Parliament resumes.

Cullen did not rush to judgment about whether Warawa should be allowed to give his statement, which is supposed to represent constituents.

“If I knew what the answer was clearly, I would have said it,” says Cullen.

Does Warawa have the right to raise this issue? “Yes he does. Absolutely he has the right,” says Cullen.

But the question of what the party can control in the House is another matter. “On the technical, does he have a prima facie case of privilege…it’s hard to figure out,” he says. “We’ve never had this.”

As a strong proponent for decorum, Cullen has a simple message, however.

Parliament has to change.

“We need to become more collegial, we need to become more reasonable…to encourage people to believe that voting actually matters and that this can be a place that solves problems,” he says.


Vetting Peter Stoffer and other challenges

Cullen once attended a group meeting on Parliament Hill about Christianity in politics. It wasn’t his idea – a constituent’s brother ran the group, and asked Cullen to go.

On his way to the meeting, he crossed paths with an evangelical Conservative MP in the hallway.

“We stop at the door and he says, ‘You here for this?’”

Cullen won’t say who the MP was. But he tells it to prove a point, it seems, about the beliefs that run deep among some members of the Conservative caucus and something Cullen says he had never been exposed to.

“It was curious to be at this meeting and hear what the conversations were, because they were very straightforward about it: that they believe there is a more supreme power than Parliament,” says Cullen.

“The whole separation (of church and state) thing – not so much. Some would argue, in that group, that it leads to bad decisions.”

He tells it in the context of Warawa’s motion – to condemn “sex-selective pregnancy termination” – which the opposition has criticized as an attempt to reopen the abortion debate.

The motion was shut down – twice – by a parliamentary committee, before Warawa’s attempt to give a statement about it was stopped by his party.

“If the prime minister wins the day on this, then every word an MP speaks can be controlled. …It would be a real shame for the country, simply because, what hopes do you have for conversation.”

Warawa was supported in his bid for free speech by some fellow backbenchers, and the incident has spurred a debate about MP independence and in turn, the essence of democracy.

“I think it’s sincere. I don’t think it’s a strategic motivation,” says Cullen.

“That’s why I think it’s more lasting than just somebody trying to climb a ladder.”

But he also admits Harper made a promise not to raise the issue of abortion.

He sees the incident as one of hypocrisy.

“If you’re a Conservative, and you’re pro-life Conservative, and you want to change abortion laws in this country, the Conservative party is happy to have you run and raise that money and get those votes but isn’t happy to have you talk about it,” he says.

As for whether the NDP vets member’s statements, Cullen said on a “handful” of occasions the House leader’s office is asked to look them over them or provide advice.

“But try vetting Peter Stoffer. What would that look like? How would I do it?” Cullen says of the six-term NDP backbencher and veteran’s affairs critic, known for his colourful comments.

Yes, he says, there have been disagreements within the NDP, such as during 2010’s long-gun registry debate. While some NDP MPs supported a Conservative private member’s bill to kill the registry, a handful changed their votes.

“We struggled through consensus-building, we struggled through the appreciation of both sides of the issue,” says Cullen. “It was much more laborious and heart-wrenching in a sense, that you really put your motivation for being in politics on the table. And the shortcut that the prime minister has taken is expedient, but it’s not sustainable.”

Cullen bemoans what he calls the “PMO creep” that has infiltrated Parliament, including member’s statements that routinely attack the NDP’s “$21-billion carbon tax.”

“If the prime minister wins the day on this, then every word an MP speaks can be controlled,” says Cullen.

“It would be a real shame for the country, simply because, what hopes do you have for conversation.”

On cooperation and being generous

In 2011, Cullen ran for the NDP leadership. He made the decision during Jack Layton’s funeral, when Layton’s son, Toronto councillor Mike Layton, spoke about being the son of an ambitious politician.

“I had to sit there as an MP, after seven or eight years in, and really struggle with the idea about whether I’d been generous with myself in this work, or whether I’d given enough,” says Cullen, who was first elected in 2004.

“And my conclusion was I had not.”

In his platform, Cullen proposed more cooperation between the parties – a joint nomination contest between the NDP, Greens and the Liberals in Conservative-held ridings.

It didn’t go well. Not at first.

“We were getting killed,” says Cullen. “We were just not relevant. We were losing money. No real support. I’d promoted this really unpopular idea. I’d gotten booed at events.”

But something changed on Jan. 2, 2012. It was at an event in Penticton, B.C. – a Conservative stronghold.

Even though he was preceded by a spoken word poet, there were lots of people in the crowd. And it was the moment Cullen saw the tides changing for him in his campaign.

He credits his message about a different kind of politics finally taking hold beyond the partisan supporters.

“The wave started,” he says. “It just felt very good.”

He lost the leadership, but his move made an impact. When Mulcair shuffled the party in 2011, Cullen became House leader.

And his message of cooperation has resonated too – most recently picked up by Liberal candidate Joyce Murray.

“I think it’s a worthy idea,” says Cullen. “I don’t promote it. I’m very explicit. Because I didn’t win. I don’t have that mandate.”

He says what happens with the idea will depend on circumstances: on polling, on the results of the May 13 by-election in Labrador. But neither Mulcair nor Trudeau support it.

“It’s up to others. I pushed the ball a certain amount down the field and I didn’t make the goal,” he says.

Instead he’s focusing on other things: such as the party’s convention this weekend in Montreal.

Cullen wants to talk resource policy and the temporary foreign worker program – two issues he sees as ultimately linked.

He brushes off suggestions that proposals to nationalize oil and gas will make it to the floor.

“I’d be surprised if the mood out there for anything like that is present,” he says.

But right now, he is late – for a TV panel on civility, of all things.

He looks at the time and abruptly announces he has to go.

“I really do. I’m sorry,” says Cullen. “That’s rude.”

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