By Richard Forbes.

Today, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) will hear from a number of witnesses, including Ed Broadbent, former NDP leader and founder of Broadbent Institute. Thus it’s rather appropriate that our series of interviews, Inside the ERRE, will hear from Nathan Cullen next, one of the leading members of the NDP caucus.

Past interviews:
Francis Scarpaleggia, Chair.
Gérard Deltell.

The Special Committee will also hear today from the former Quebec Democratic Reform minister Jean-Pierre Charbonneau and professors Yasmin Dawood, Eric Maskin and Peter John Loewen, in addition to hearing from the president of the Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle whose aim is to push electoral reform in Quebec.

Nathan Cullen has been a Member of Parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC since 2004. Across various sources, Cullen has been voted over the years as best parliamentarian, most knowledgeable parliamentarian, and best up-and-comer. He’s now one of the senior members of the NDP caucus, currently serving as their Environment and Democratic Reform critic, while also sitting as Vice Chair for the ERRE. Cullen has made a name for himself as a tireless, pro-active and even-handed advocate for democratic reform, a cleaner environment and a more civil, collaborative House of Commons.

Nathan Cullen explains his motion for a new division of seats by proportional representation in the ERRE. (Photo: Toronto Star.)

I’d like to begin by stepping back for a moment to a few months ago now: did it surprise you when the government agreed to your motion on the committee’s composition?

I wasn’t necessarily surprised. From the day we introduced the idea, we thought it worked well for the government and for Canadians. And it seemed to me that they had received enough criticism. It was only a matter of time. How much criticism would they be prepared to take before they assented to the idea?

So I was glad, because it allows the committee to work in a way that is a lot more legitimate than what the government had originally proposed.

Is the committee progressing as you would have hoped?

It’s an accelerated schedule for sure with a very tight timeline. I would say in general, the evidence we’ve been hearing has been excellent. The quality of the conversation has been very very good. I feel confident, not only that we’ll be able to get our work done, but that we’ll also be able to achieve some level of consensus between the committee members in understanding the best way to give Canadians an excellent voting system.

What kind of work behind-the-scenes are you engaging in for your role on the ERRE?

Well, I don’t want to say too much because some of the things behind-the-scenes are under confidence but in general: trying to find ways to keep the committee working together. It’s a difficult thing to ask folks who are partisan to be non-partisan, yet it’s vital to keep good faith with each other and with Canadians.

So, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ is to make sure everyone has a fair shake. But our chair is also very capable at this and has proven himself good at the job so far.

I understand that Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is in the NDP policybook, but I was wondering to what extent are you willing to compromise on proportional representation?

Well, on the very specific system that’s used, we are very willing to negotiate and compromise. There’s two families of voting systems: those that are ‘winner-takes-all’ and the proportional family. It would be very hard to go through this process, hear all this evidence and for the committee to arrive back at the same broken system that we have.

In that light, I would be surprised if FPTP or AV, list-typed systems, were able to get the support of a broad group of Canadians, because it would only actually make the problems we have with the current system worse.

Why take the time and effort just to arrive at the same place again?

It would be remiss of me not to ask the proverbial question: Is a referendum necessary?

I still think if the process is both seen as, and is legitimate, we’ll be able to have the confidence of Canadians. By that I mean, if the public forums are open, that the parties work together and that more than one major party supports the outcome then I think people can have some confidence.

Yet, I understand the hesitation. We had suggested a citizen’s forum to allow more people into the conversation – that part was not taken up by the Liberals, unfortunately. A second proposal might be to have a couple of elections with the new system and then put it to a question to allow Canadians the final say, so that ultimately they’re the ones in charge.

Nathan Cullen speaking to reporters in Ottawa. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, CP.)

How do you anticipate electoral reform could change how the NDP campaigns?

I think it would change how everyone campaigns. I think it will reward those that try to find more common ground and show their willingness to compromise and share power. It’ll punish those that use wedge politics and the divide-and-conquer approach to Canada.

So, I think it’ll change us for the better, I think it’ll change everybody in the way they do politics for the better.

We’ve heard a lot about the electoral system – but beyond the electoral system, is there any democratic reform you’re keen to advance?

I mean we’re open to the idea of lowering the voting age, we want to study what the impacts of that would be. We are also looking at online voting as to whether it’s suitable for Canada. A lot of the evidence, perhaps surprisingly, coming back is quite negative on online voting just in terms of risk. The Liberals have also floated the notion of mandatory voting. I’m not, personally, a big enthusiast, but certainly we’ll hear arguments for that as well. The evidence for that hasn’t been overly supportive of that either.

Do you believe the parties will reach a compromise on electoral reform in the final committee report?

It’s certainly my intention and my hope. Ultimately, it depends on what kind of common ground we’re able to establish. Yet I think it’s in everyone’s interest. The last number of years, parliament has become increasingly divided and nasty. This is an issue that steps beyond any one party’s interest, and we have to act with our best intelligence and our best intentions, and if we do that, there’s lots of common ground to be established, so I remain very hopeful about the exercise even if there are bumps along the road.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on electoral reform and the committee, Mr. Cullen and I wish you good luck with your work as Vice Chair.

Anytime and thank you for the interest.

The following interview was conducted 04/08/2016 via telephone. Edited and condensed.


Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes


4 thoughts on “Nathan Cullen seeks common ground on electoral reform: Interview

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s