NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen speaks to Yahoo! about his surging campaign

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Just two months ago, NDP leadership hopeful Nathan Cullen was considered a non-factor in the race to replace Jack Layton.

But now, with less than two weeks until the leadership convention in Toronto, some are suggesting Cullen could be the next leader of the NDP.

"Mulcair has gained steam to become the odds-on favourite [to win the leadership]" Sam Cooper of PostMedia News wrote Saturday.

"Still, an intriguing possibility is that the NDP's complicated, new leadership voting system could allow Cullen, B.C.'s non-establishment candidate, to come up the middle and ride a green-wave from Vancouver to victory in Toronto."

Cullen, 39, was raised in Toronto but moved to rural B.C. as an adult.

First elected to Parliament in 2004,  he says he wants to do politics differently, that he's pro business and more pragmatic than partisan.

He's also been active in the environmental movement.  Last month he appeared before a government review panel in opposition to the Northern Gateway pipe-line.

Cullen's recent  momentum is, in part, due to his controversial proposal to work with other parties to beat the Harper Conservatives.

Cullen is proposing that, in Tory-held seats, the NDP, Liberals and Greens would elect candidates as they currently do, with the winners facing off before an election to see which one faces the Conservative.

This would help reduce vote-splitting, he says, and help find ways for progressive voters to act on the common ground they share.

Here are some excerpts from his interview with Yahoo! Canada News:

Yahoo!: Just a couple of months ago, you were considered an underdog in this race.   Now some people are even suggesting you might win the leadership on March 24.  What happened over the last two months? What changed?

Cullen: I think for the initial part of this race it was mostly people that were more entrenched in the party and certainly more familiar with the status-quo. And as the race has gone on  and we've been able to attract more and more people who are interested in change. Even the initial naysayers are much more open to this idea [of change] and much more willing to donate and help out.

Yahoo!: There are some pundits and analysts who say you have momentum but only in your home province of British Columbia. They suggest you don't have enough support outside of B.C. to win.

Cullen: Check the [membership] lists.

We have organizers right across the country and we are very very strong in certain regions. Certainly British Columbia is our base but that is only natural [because I'm from B.C.] and I'm proud of it.

The Ottawa [media] got [my campaign] wrong right from the start. They continue to try to understand why we're having any momentum at all.

And now they're going to [suggest] it's because I'm from B.C.?

Yahoo!: Are strategic alliances the only way to beat Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in the next election?

Cullen: No, it's just one of the better ways. It's a way that reflects progressive values and it reflects the NDP's experience.

[Historically] when the NDP have found ways to get things done, by co-operating with others, Canadiian voters have in fact rewarded us.

[For example] when we did a budget in 2005 with the [Martin] government and [when we] attempted to form a coalition government.

When people remember Jack, certainly they remember his optimism and the power of his voice...but also his pragmatism and his willingness to work together to make things better.

Yahoo!: Others have suggested that the NDP needs to move to the centre of the political spectrum to form government.  What is your opinion on that?

Cullen: I kind of reject the analysis only because I think it's more a question of whether we look forwards or backwards.

Parties and groups that don't continue to evolve — well, they don't evolve.  And in politics that can be an unforgiving thing. We need to build upon our successes and know that we had those successes because Jack evolved the party.

Did he bring the party to the middle, or to the left?

I think there's such a range of issues it's hard to pin that down. But he certainly challenged the party's thinking and demanded we constantly look to the future.

And I think that's where the spectrum is decided. Which candidates are going forward and which are looking for glory days in the past.

Yahoo!: What is your pitch over the final  two weeks as you travel the country.  What do you tell members about why they should vote for you?

Cullen: I grew up in the biggest city but I live in one of the smallest communities. I understand the urban rural divide and I know how do bridge it.

Being from the east but living in the west I understand the sensibilities.

My approach to politics is ultimately an open one. I believe we should never be afraid of good ideas. So if you like new thinking, if you like to challenge ourselves then come on-board.

If you like the status-quo then you probably won't be happy with my leadership because I plan to challenge myself and the way we do things.