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article imageOp-Ed: NDP leadership nominee Nathan Cullen speaks with Digital Journal Special

By Andrew Reeves     Oct 21, 2011 in Politics
Toronto - NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen has a bold idea for how progressive policies can help decide future elections more than party politics. His idea is gaining ground, but are Canadians ready for such a shift in the political landscape?
A small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in the Hart House Debate Room at the University of Toronto last night to spend an evening with New Democratic Party leadership hopeful Nathan Cullen. Cullen, a Toronto-native who now represents the northern-British Columbia riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley in the House of Commons, announced this past week his intention to seek a mandate to become leader of the federal NDP. And while the $15,000 entry fee and list of member signatures have yet to be filed, Cullen's campaign has officially begun.
The first thing you notice about Cullen is his confidence, and the affable way in which he works the room, introducing himself to anyone he does not recognize. There is an air of "a stranger is just a friend you haven't met" about him, and what may come across as forced mingling in other political figures is absent in Cullen. Likely going back to his days as a community organizer, you can tell that a genuine fondness for personal connections and human narratives helps guide his approach to politics.
This is a man who honestly enjoys meeting new people, and sharing his vision with them of what a progressive new Canada can look like.
Cullen's involvement in politics began in 2003 when, running a small business in Northern British Columbia, he attended a local Chamber of Commerce meeting and was shocked by the overtly systemic racism he heard about local First Nations coming from his Conservative members of parliament. Acting eventually on the belief that in order to change something you must be the change you hope to see, Cullen accepted the nomination from the New Democrats and ran a campaign dependent on the efforts of local volunteers who truly believed in the kind of change he hoped to usher in.
"Imagine if we could change the parameters of winning," he told the crowd last night, "away from traditional concepts of political victory." A campaign focused on empowerment for common people who didn't see a place for themselves in the official pronouncements that Canada, as Stephen Harper has declared recently, a conservative country founded on conservative values.
It was a grassroots effort that helped Cullen beat out a Conservative incumbent in 2004, and it is the same attitude towards politics that he is bringing to the NDP leadership race.
"My approach to politics is different," Cullen told me as the Hart House meet-and-greet was wrapping up. "I'm a community organizer by experience, and by nature. I see politics as inherently bottom up, and I trust that people can entertain new ideas without being scared away."
And it is a new idea of Cullen's that has got everyone talking, both in Ottawa and in the press. The "policy hand grenade" that Cullen has recently thrown into the leadership race is a simple idea based on the power of cooperation, and taking strides towards correcting political imbalances and imperfections in the current way we elect Members of Parliament.
Under Cullen's plan, all progressive candidates in a riding currently held by a Conservative would hold what amounts to a political primary to determine which of the candidates nominated by their party would run against the incumbent. This is determined by allowing all progressive candidates the opportunity to fund raise, organize volunteers, and demonstrate to progressive voters in the riding that they had mobilized most effectively, and stand the greatest chance of defeating the Conservative candidate.
It is an effort to avoid vote-splitting, and to allow parties to channel much-needed funds into races where their candidate stands the greatest chance of winning. But when questioned about the risk it poses to any party if they are out campaigned in the primary-stage, Cullen is blunt. "If a primary progressive candidate is not able to out-organize and out-fund raise another progressive candidate," he said, "there is no way they are going to beat an incumbent Conservative with an eighty-thousand dollar war chest at their disposal."
In the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom writes of Cullen's plan that "had such a scheme been in place during last May’s federal election, the Harper Conservatives might well have been denied several Toronto-area seats, where NDP candidates who didn’t bother to campaign siphoned off just enough votes to ensure Liberal defeats."
Cullen is aware of the negative connotations of his plan, and at its worst it does seem like a throwback to the ABC movement in Newfoundland in the 2008 election when "Anyone-But-Conservatives" ruled the day. But there is an urgency to Cullen's plan, and an underlying pragmatism to it, however tall an order it will be to sell it to other progressive parties like the Liberals and the Greens, let alone to voters.
But the "policy hand grenade is more than that," Cullen notes.
"It's not meant to be provocative for its own sake. It's trying to manifest a value of cooperation. It was in the name of our party for a long time, but we cannot get into a bunker mentality. We want to step beyond traditional alignments in order to achieve something that's more important than ourselves."
And he is honest with the crowd of 50 or so last night when asked how he thinks Canadians will react to his idea - in fact, whether Canadians are even ready for such a shift in the political landscape.
"I don't know," he admits. "It gives voters something to vote for. We can't just always offer up what to vote against, and it shows at least a willingness to be generous and cooperative. We have undersold what politics can accomplish, and that's by design, by people like Mr. Harper."
And that, in a nutshell, seems to be what Mr. Cullen's leadership campaign is all about: a rethinking of what progressive politics can accomplish in partnership with community and grassroots efforts. But driven, as a party leader needs to be, not just to compete, but to win.
Leadership means "being respectful of tradition and [being] as bold as I can," Cullen told me, "yet always keeping in mind you speak on behalf of others."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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