MP Cullen ponders a run at federal NDP leadership

Northwest political leader of many years says taking another stab is a weighty decision with climate change policy being a central piece

  • Apr. 17, 2016 7:00 p.m.

The NDP needs a new leader, and Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP MP Nathan Cullen said he will make a decision on whether to try for the job soon.

“Ultimately the passion has to burn bright. Anyone taking this on, this is a serious commitment obviously, but also a long one … That is a ten year or more effort, and that is a big part of one’s life,” said Cullen speaking last week.

Cullen, the MP for Skeena – Bulkley Valley since 2004, has held key NDP caucus critic roles such as finance and the environment and rose to national prominence when he placed third the last time the NDP held a leadership race which was in  2012.

That was to replace party leader Jack Layton who died in 2011 after leading the party to official opposition status in the federal election of that same year.

Tom Mulcair won that leadership contest but after the party slid to third place in last fall’s election, party members decided by a slim 52 per cent majority in Edmonton April 10 to seek a new leader.

“I hope not to take too long because I don’t think it’s respectful, but there isn’t necessarily an external urgency on this,” said Cullen.

Party members have set a two-year window in which to choose a new leader and Mulcair has been asked to stay on during that period.

Cullen said he had wanted to see Mulcair stay on as leader in the run up to the Edmonton vote, and that while surprised at the review result, believed expectations have changed for a party that was vying to become the government for the first time in its history last October.

“I think the expectations of New Democrats have changed dramatically, even in my time … that it’s no longer satisfying for people that we are the conscience of the country,” said Cullen.

“Now the expectation is to bring those principles into government, and that was there for us last time,” said Cullen, referring to a lead in the polls early on in last year’s election campaign.

What those philosophical principles are for the federal NDP was also up for debate at the Edmonton convention.

The approximately 1,800 delegates voted to bring the Leap Manifesto to each of the riding associations for debate.

The document first surfaced during last fall’s federal election and calls for a restructuring of the Canadian economy away for fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy.

The document’s initiating signatories include authors Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, musician Alanis Morrisette, actress Pamela Anderson, and Stephen Lewis, a former Ontario NDP leader and ambassador to the United Nations under Brian Mulroney.

Stephen Lewis was one of the keynote speakers at the convention, while his son Avi advocated for the Leap Manifesto.

It calls for an immediate halt to building new oil and gas infrastructure, including pipelines and fractured drilling operations that are proposed for northern B.C.

It also refers to Canadian-owned mining projects, stating “if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.”

The document also says ownership structures of companies should change, stating, “As an alternative to the profit-gouging of private companies and the remote bureaucracy of some centralized state ones, we can create innovative ownership structures: democratically run, paying living wages and keeping much-needed revenue in communities.”

Just the contemplation of adopting the Leap Manifesto was shot down by NDP Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, another keynote speaker at the convention.

Her province is suffering from high unemployment and declining government revenues brought on by low oil prices and the lack of new pipelines to ship oil offshore.

Cullen said he believed that while his party was too cautious during the election, he was not on board with the Leap Manifesto in its entirety.

“It’s not a plan or a process. I was uncomfortable with what its impact would be if you were in government, like say the NDP are in Manitoba and Alberta and hope to be in British Columbia, and what that would mean on a policy level,” said Cullen.

“There’s no one who can argue, to me, that Rachel Notley is any less progressive than Naomi Klein. She’s actually doing the things, not simply talking about them.”

He added that arguments on whether to build pipelines was “putting the cart before the horse,” saying a regulatory review and a plan on how to build an economy without harming the planet was needed first.

Cullen does not believe the split within the party on the Leap Manifesto and its ideals are a threat to the NDP.

“There are some who say you can have principals or power, you can’t have both. I think the party’s culture has rejected that, actually. So leaving in the aspirational ideas behind something like this document into a progressive platform is exactly what we need to do, and in lots of ways our platform was that,” said Cullen.

Should Cullen decide at a leadership run, he’d have the support of Robin Austin, the provincial NDP MLA for Skeena.

“I  haven’t talked to him since the events of last Sunday but yes I  would support him, if it’s something he wanted to do,” said Austin last week after the April 10 vote in Edmonton.

“I did it last time and I would again,” he said

Austin, who has been the MLA for Skeena since 2005, is facing a decision of his own  and that’s whether he’ll stay to run in the 2017 provincial election or retire.

He’s to make that decision later this spring.

With files from Chris Gareau, The Interior News, Smithers, B.C