“Nathan Cullen for prime minister!” read a poster outside the Old Church in Smithers last Saturday night.
That idea was in the air as dozens of Cullen’s supporters filled the historic building to hear the three-term Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP talk about his potential run for the leadership of the federal New Democrats.
“You’re one of the most intimidating crowds I know,” he said to the crowd of friends, family, and long-time supporters.
Over the next couple of weeks, Cullen said, he would travel to test the waters for a future leadership bid.
The campaign to replace the late Jack Layton kicks off officially Sept. 15 and ends March 24 at a convention in Toronto. NDP members will vote for their new leader on a one-member, one-vote basis.
The party’s federal council decided on a March vote, rather than a January one, to give the candidates more time to sell new party memberships and build on the orange wave that saw a record 103 NDP MPs voted into official opposition status at the last federal election.
To ensure a list of serious contenders, the federal NDP council decided last week to double the required entry fee for candidates to $15,000. Cullen said the fundraising effort is just getting started.
“That means people signing up and joining a political party. Why would you do that? What happens in political parties?” he asked supporters. “We’ve got to find another way to describe this, so that people say, ‘Yes—that is an action of hope, to join into the conversation.’”
Cullen said he had no long-term plan to run for leader before the sudden passing of Jack Layton. But the former leader did leave a clear direction to follow, he said.
“We need to respond to the message that was left to us,” he said, recalling Layton’s funeral in Toronto. “I sat in that seat in Roy Thomson Hall and I could feeling it punching through my head—and it said ‘generosity’.”
Cullen was first elected in 2004, and was voted best rookie MP by colleagues from all political parties that year. He currently serves as chair of the House committee on Privacy, Access to Information and Ethics and as a natural resources critic for Western Canada.
Talking to Black Press, Cullen said he imagines that, as federal NDP leader, he would spend less time in the constituency here and possible have less parliamentary work.
“I treat working the northwest and time in the northwest as sacred. You never want to lose touch with the people you represent,” he said.
As for how well he speaks French, it’s okay but he’s working on it.
“A reporter in Ottawa said my French is as good as Chretien’s English,” he said, adding his French teacher grimaces at his grammar.
Cullen doesn’t think a challenge of the federal leadership would be to keep the Quebec NDP MPs on side with the national party. It’s been thought by some that Quebec voted more for Layton than the NDP but Cullen disagrees.
“…but they also knew what Jack represented and what they stand for,” he said, adding the NDP social democratic philosophy has been in line with Quebecers for a long time.
“One thing out of all of this is I get to bring the issues of Skeena to the national stage even more,” he said if he were to become national NDP leader.
“As we begin to debate what kind of leader the party wants and the country wants, where you come from is part of that dialogue.”
Cullen is among six or seven people said to be thinking of campaigning for the national leadership.