NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen brings co-operation and charisma

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It isn't all more prisons and less freedoms. Yes, it has been tough watching the sludge come pouring out of Parliament since Harper got his majority last May. But there's an exciting window of opportunity open right now. It is a limited-time offer, though, so try not to sleep through it.

I'm talking about the NDP leadership race. And frankly, if you're not a supremely dedicated NDP loyalist or a seriously addicted political junkie, it's almost impossible not to be nodding off at the mere mention. Really, how could it be otherwise?

Eight candidates, all of them not Jack. And of course they basically agree on most things. The party isn't like the Liberals, making it all up as they go along. But let's pause there for a minute, because there is no better reminder of how heavy the cost of poor leader-picking can be than a look back at the Libs.

When the NDP chooses its new head on March 24, the consequences will play out for a long time. But don't relax and think there's plenty of time till then. February 18 is the last chance to get voting rights if you want to be a player in this historic moment. Believe me, it's worth it. Because here's the billion-dollar question: who can actually defeat the Tories in the next election?

And here's the open window that makes it wise to invest the 10 bucks to get yourself an NDP membership if you don't already have one. In a respectable but lacklustre field of maybe's, there is one candidate who goes beyond the party's traditional wing- and-a-prayer to offer a credible plan that says, "Yes, we will win."

Nathan Cullen is the 39-year-old come-from-behind candidate who is turning heads with his skilled communication and charisma. He's the breath of fresh air the party and the country need.

Here's one bold idea he brings to the table. "In Conservative-held ridings, before the next election I would allow local constituencies -- New Democrats -- to hold joint nomination meetings with Liberals and Greens. They would select a candidate under one of those banners who would take on the Conservative. And win. And then form a progressive government."

Wow. That may not be rocket science, but it is strikingly good election math. Cullen is one brave politician.

"You're supposed to say, 'We're great, we're perfect. And the country's going to realize that and we'll be the government,' right?" he tells me. "People would like to believe it's just been a misunderstanding. That's why we haven't been government yet.

"For more than 50 years my party has asked Canadians to think differently about things. It's time we asked ourselves that same question."

Here's a Toronto boy who has somehow escaped our big-city bull and made a name for himself -- and won four elections -- in a remote riding that covers the entire northwest corner of British Columbia, including Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert. His home turf, Skeena-Bulkley Valley, is on the front lines of Canada's afflicted resource industry battleground. The Northern Gateway pipeline is slated to run right through it.

Cullen definitely attributes some of his unique perspective to his intimate relationship with Tory power. "Maybe I'm willing to be less partisan and put pragmatism ahead of that because the place where I live is being threatened right now. This guy wants to bully us. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to stop him."

Cullen deservedly crows about the fact that he's the only person in the race who beat a Conservative to get into the House of Commons. "I understand their methods on the ground," he says. "It gives me a particular insight, and it's why co-operation for me makes loads of sense."

Cullen has honed his chops at bringing people together in a difficult political landscape. That's something the party needs.

"From the beginning, we said we were going to run our campaign the same way we do things up north. We're going to find unlikely allies and we're going to get them motivated on things they are already motivated by, but then connect their activism to politics."

You can see why Cullen calls himself a community organizer by nature. And you can see that his years of development work in Africa and Latin America add to that skill set. Cullen speaks three languages (Spanish, French and English). He also gives props to the First Nations elders he's worked with for teaching him an important thing or two.

But could he seriously lead the party? A track record of choosing a community-builder with appeal over the worthy but dull has served the NDP well in the past. Co-operation politics has youth appeal and internal upsides the party lacks right now. For one, it's great branding in Quebec, which voted to defeat Harper as well as for Jack. Of the non-Quebeckers in the race, his pitch will play best in a province where the non-partisan spirit of cooperation gets strongest support.

And the party will need a team-builder after this race who can keep the party's prickly orator and Quebec lieutenant, Thomas Mulcair, working his magic all over the province, while the brilliant but charisma-challenged Brian Topp figures out how to get the party's messages across. Hard to say whether either of these guys could keep the other fully engaged.

Cullen's obvious talent has kept him from being marginalized, despite his challenging views. He's near the top in number of donors. With mail-in and Internet balloting, no one can predict this race.

Cullen thinks he can win. But he doesn't want to win a popularity contest. He wants more.

"The mandate I need from my party," he says, "is that we will collaborate with the best thinkers in the country, and that we're open to change."

More from Nathan Cullen:

On challenging party orthodoxy:

Try to appreciate what it is for someone to stand up in front of partisan room after partisan room and challenge that room's thinking. That's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to, I think, get up in front of the room and say 'We're great. We're perfect.

And the country's going to realize that and vote for us and we'll be the government.' Right? Because people would like to believe that it's just a misunderstanding for 50 years. That's why we haven't been government yet. And I'm suggesting something different, and it's, I'll be honest, there's a lot of times where you take a deep breath and go 'Gosh, should I keep doing this?' But, mind you, in Halifax I defended my idea and it was cheered.

I'm not saying everyone in the room was thrilled with it but I think people are understanding that it's okay to publicly say this is a good idea now, even though they may have held it privately before. But I can understand why the other campaigns don't want to go near it. I can totally understand because you have to have the courage or convictions on this one. You can't waffle, be maybe this, maybe that. You better believe it. Because there's a lot of people invested in to where it is right now.

The last election:

May 2 was weird. I won my fourth election. The party did incredibly well, and I felt total mixed feelings. Amazing what we did in Quebec. But Quebec put out their hand and a bunch of the country just slapped it away. And so we didn't close the deal. And I'm thinking, well then, how do we close? This co-operation idea, if there's any region where this is very, very popular, it's in Quebec.

Election reform:

I don't think the governments in this country that have put [proportional representation election reform] forward, had any interest in it actually succeeding. I think it was quite cynical. In B.C. they put forward a system that nobody could understand, at all, and it wouldn't have been a great choice, and still it almost passed. In Ontario and other places -- a government in power is loathe to give up the system that got them into power. It worked for them. And the backroom guys say, 'Do not change, because power is what this is all about.'

And so it is a level of sacred commitment that when we get in, we have to promise one another, and I will promise as a leader, that this is what happens first. And do it right. Bring in some citizens, bring in a couple of models to look at, and then choose one that people understand, that guarantees that your vote's going to count, then it's more fair. And then go from there.

I think Harper's proving the case better than anything that I could ever say. Why do we need changes to the voting system? Let me introduce you to Stephen Harper and his government. And then most people will say 'Yeesh!' Even a lot of conservatives.

Doing politics differently:

If I hear one more politician talk about how they want to do politics differently, I think I'll throw up. Show me. 'Because if you're willing to do even something so fundamental as this differently, what else are you willing to do differently? Like how citizens participate with their government in between elections? I want to talk about lowering the voting age, about how we reconnect our value to those who put us into office. I don't believe the way that we do things is the only way to do things. I don't. 'Because I know it's not the only way to do things.

I watched a bunch of agriculture reform when I was in the coastal side of the Amazon in Ecuador and it was born out of basically people who were empowered with decisions that we would normally see as made by bureaucrats or by the central government. And they were doing a lot more community forests, they were doing community agriculture, and they were given some of the tools and levers of government at a local democratic level. And it was extremely powerful.

I think there's a Father Knows Best mentality within some government, where citizens should only be involved to a bare minimum. I think you reverse that. I think the best ideas come up that way.

I want to prove to Canadians, to progressive Canadians, that we can think differently, we can act beyond our own self-interest and that politics can be this fervent place of ideas and sharing them, and it doesn't have to be total war. And it doesn't have to be disrespectful and mean. It can be this other thing where you just make it more human and it make it ideas-centred.

For more than 50 years my party has asked Canadians to think differently about things. Imagine a different possibility. It's time we asked ourselves that same question. I don't get to come in here and say you should think differently about your business and how you
run this place if I'm not doing those same things in my life. That's called hypocrisy. So it's not a slogan for me. It's embedded, because I look at issues of energy, and I look at issues of climate change, I look at issues of prosperity and wealth, and I say well, we need to think differently

The Harper Government:

These guys have slipped into a McCarthy approach to government. I honestly didn't think they would go this radical. And I mean radical in the real sense of the word. We've been living parts of this for years, so I know exactly how the stages of what you're about to see more broadly -- I was meeting with some NGO's here this morning in Toronto and I said 'Don't think you're not on a list. You're dealing with civic affairs, or greening the region, or whatever, and if you have ever in your past or plan to in your future, criticize a government policy, you're on the list. And it's not that they're going to cut your funding, they're going to try to end you. They're going to try to make you not exist.'

Favourite thing about politics:

Well, I'm a community organizer by my nature. I like to see campaigns. I don't mean just political campaigns, ballot box campaigns. I like when we organize and get something done. The opportunity, if I can call it that, of all of these terrible things that are happening is that it will consolidate and focus people's energies. This doesn't stop at environmental groups. The target is women's groups, social justice, aboriginal. Go down the list; this is an 'us' and 'them' campaign with the Prime Minister.

A clear and present danger has a consolidating effect. It brings people into the room that never thought they could ever get into the room together and agree on something. But when people show up to theses pipeline hearings and are called radicals and enemies of the state by this government, they mistreat people, they insult people, and they consolidate people in unlikely ways. And so what we need to do is simply manifest the power of that. And not just in opposition. Here's the trick. The magic in politics for me is when you, okay, we're going to get together and talk about this thing. And we're going to sign petitions, and march, or do whatever we do to try to stop the bad thing. My favourite moment in politics is when you have that empowerment and that feeling of excitement and vision and focus.

You then say, okay, what do you want? And that's when politics is at its best. That's when the hairs go up on the back of my neck and I say, 'Ah yes, this is beautiful.' And if done right, you kind of work yourself out of a job.

Populism:

Sometimes we run into conflict on our populist roots, because we are a populist party. We're where we come from is that place and I think there is great benefit in populism. If you do it intelligently, it keeps you out of the ivory towers, right? Someone like Ignatief, incredibly smart, couldn't address the populist idea if it saved his life. Frankly, he just didn't have that door knocking, door step connection; Jack, Olivia get the doorstep. As do I; that's where my bread and butter is. I do doorsteps. So that sort of orients you in a different way but I think, well, all I can offer is this, is that the place I'm starting from is, I think a place that allows for much more possibility of collaboration just on ideas, never mind voting and all the rest. I am speaking heresy in saying that other parties, from time to time have good ideas. And we should support them, steal them, use them. So I'm starting from a pretty humble spot, and I think if you start from there, then the moments when you need to reach out and say the other guys have a good idea, that ground has already been laid. You're okay.

On the green file:

We're committed to a lot of things, right? But you only get to prioritize a couple. nd you got to be committed to some core things. To me, when my team forms up, I say the Green lens comes in front of every policy and you drive it through that lens. We'll release environmental planks but every plank should be environmental. I think the Prime Minister should be the environment minister. Why cast it off to some low level bureaucracy that has no influence in power? Put it in the Prime Minister's office, so that whether it's trade or transportation or health, whatever we have to deal with, everything drives through that.

How to get a mandate:

It's an organizational thing that from my background you bring people into the room and you plan together. And you aspire together. The way you set up a conversation is often what determines the quality and the type of decision you make. One goes to the other. If there's just me sitting at the head of the board table cranking down decisions, then that would be the way this campaign is but it's not. I need a mandate. Politics is so easy, right? You run on a bunch of promises and if you win you have a mandate. And the mandate I need for my party is that we will collaborate with the best thinkers in the country, and we're open to change. If I don't have that mandate I wouldn't want to be leader. I have said as explicitly as I could that if you want status quo, if you want to go back in time, do not vote for me. Vote for somebody else.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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