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Federal Politics
BC Politics

Cullen and Rankin: A Tyee Conversation

The two New Democrats look back and ahead as they make their parliamentary exit.

By Christopher Guly 24 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Guly is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, the Canadian correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and a frequent contributor to the Ottawa Citizen.

For political junkies, the seemingly never-ending story surrounding the SNC-Lavalin scandal has been a gift that keeps on giving.

Cabinet ministers quitting and then being tossed from the Liberal caucus. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest advisors resigning. Chaos on budget day when the Conservatives loudly protested the Liberals’ decision to end the justice committee investigation into the scandal. Trudeau threatening to sue Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

For New Democrat members of Parliament Nathan Cullen and Murray Rankin, the SNC-Lavalin situation remains shrouded in mystery over high-profile departures, unanswered questions, alleged political interference and possible lapses in judgment.

Both B.C. MPs participated in the justice committee hearings and were present on Feb. 27 when Wilson-Raybould delivered her explosive testimony. But their work on the SNC-Lavalin file could end before the matter is unraveled, resolved, investigated by the RCMP or subject to a public inquiry — as called for by both the New Democratic and Conservative parties — or ultimately judged on by Canadians in the October election.

Cullen and Rankin won’t be in that race, as neither will be running for re-election. Both want more time with their families and to leave Parliament with a sense of achievement.

Cullen, the 46-year-old MP for the northwestern B.C. riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley, was first elected in 2004.

“I felt like it was time and a good moment to leave,” he said in an interview. “Over 15 years, we accomplished a lot of what we hoped to do. It sounds glib, but I felt that I should get out of the way and let somebody else try their hand. The riding deserves the very best, and I felt like somebody else could do better and I shouldn’t stay past that moment of realization.”

“In my experience, politicians tend to stay too long, and I wanted to end well. I wanted to make sure that whatever I do I could be as proud of it on the last day as I was on the first day of entering federal politics.”

Among his accomplishments, Cullen highlights the efforts he made to ban crude oil tanker traffic along B.C.’s northern coast through a private member’s bill introduced in 2015. It was voted down by the Harper government but mainly adopted by the Trudeau government and is now the subject of hearings by the Senate transportation committee.

Cullen has also drawn inspiration from his constituents in drafting private member’s bills.

Ten years ago, he launched an annual “Create Your Canada” contest. The contest began offering children in his riding the chance to propose legislation. A committee would judge the entries, and Cullen would introduce the winning submission as a bill in Parliament. It has expanded to allow everyone in the riding to enter.

This year’s selection ended up as Bill C-429, the Zero-Waste Packaging Act, which would amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, to prohibit the use of consumer product packaging unless it is made of a material that is recyclable or compostable. The bill is currently at second reading in the House.

Eleven current and former New Democrat MPs have followed suit and run a similar competition, according to the Hill Times.

But the regular 4,556-kilometre trek between Ottawa and Cullen’s home in Smithers has taken a toll.

His twin eight-year-old sons, Elliot and Isaac, have largely grown up waiting for the weekend to hang out with their dad when the House is in session. Cullen’s wife, Diana, an education consultant, has also spent their entire marriage watching her husband balance family time with parliamentary duties.

Rankin’s situation is not dissimilar.

“When you travel eight hours door-to-door to come to your constituents and go back to Ottawa, over time it takes a bit of a toll,” explains the 69-year-old former University of Victoria law professor first elected as the MP for Victoria in a 2012 byelection. “I’m tired of being perpetually jet lagged because you never know what time zone you’re in.”

He too will have more time with family — although in a twist of fate, his son, Ben, who worked for the federal finance department in Ottawa, is headed for Washington, D.C. in June to work as an economist with the International Monetary Fund.

However, son Mark lives in Victoria where he is involved in mapping the ocean floor with UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada. And Rankin will have more time with wife Linda Hannah, who holds a PhD in geography with a focus on environmental governance from UVic and recently served as regional vice-president of the Nature Conservancy of Canada for B.C. and the Yukon.

Post-Parliament, Cullen and Rankin will have time to decompress and think, both about what lies ahead and what they’ve left behind.

Cullen, who in 2012 ran for the federal NDP leadership won by Tom Mulcair and who was chosen by his fellow MPs as Maclean’s “Parliamentarian of the Year” in 2018 (after twice being voted “best orator” and once “most knowledgeable MP”), hasn’t completely ruled out a return to politics one day.

“The easy answer is to say no, but never say never,” said Cullen, who was seen as a potential leadership replacement had Jagmeet Singh not won the Burnaby South byelection in late February.

As for jumping into the provincial political arena should B.C. Premier John Horgan’s NDP minority government lose Green support and be forced to call an election, Cullen said that he has “not asked nor received any offers to run.”

“I also believe that if I step out of politics, I may never do it again and I’d be OK with that as well. Timing is everything in politics and there might not be another context in which I can run.”

851px version of HorganCullenHandsPockets.jpg
Premier John Horgan and MP Nathan Cullen. Cullen says that he has ‘not asked nor received any offers to run’ provincially. Photo: BC NDP.

He is not a big fan of social media and would prefer to take a pass on posting selfies on Instagram. He tweets, but regrets the Twitter battles he’s gotten into.

“I like consensus and co-operation,” said Cullen. “I enjoy when Parliament’s doing good things and getting things done. I don’t necessarily love scoring points in question period or enjoy watching colleagues disgrace themselves — even if we get a bump in the polls.”

He doesn’t have a job waiting for him when he leaves Parliament, but he said that he could return to the NGO world that he inhabited in the 1990s while working on community economic development projects in Central and South America, or do advocacy work as he did in 1998 when he started a consultancy in Smithers and was involved in files on environmental, and Indigenous rights and title issues.

Rankin, meanwhile, has already signalled what he may do when he leaves the House. In mid-March, he was in Cullen’s federal constituency as the pro-bono B.C. government representative in negotiations to affirm the title, rights, laws and traditional governance throughout the Wet’suwet’en territory in the province.

Practicing and teaching law was Rankin’s pre-political career, highlighted by his work as a treaty negotiator for the B.C. government beginning with his appointment by former NDP premier Mike Harcourt in 1994. Expect more of that work from Rankin as a lawyer, but not as a politician. His days of elected office can now be in the past.

“I’d rather go out at a time when people still think I’m doing a good job in the riding, than to wait another four years and it’s about ‘kick the bum out, what has he done for me lately?’” said Rankin, who serves as the NDP’s deputy justice critic in the House after previously serving as justice critic.

His entry into federal politics followed a tight race. Rankin won his seat in 2012 by just 1,118 votes. The Green Party candidate, Donald Galloway, placed second. Rankin was re-elected as the MP for Victoria in 2015 with a larger 6,731-vote spread over Green candidate Jo-Ann Roberts, who ran second.

“The Greens have been trying very hard to increase their seat count from [leader Elizabeth May’s] one to two, and this is their targeted riding for the country,” said Rankin, who has solid green credentials as the former president of West Coast Environmental Law Association, past chairman of the Land Conservancy of B.C. and co-chair of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre.

“I got the most individual donations of any member of Parliament when I ran in 2015,” said Rankin. “It would take a lot for the Green Party to take this riding in my humble opinion.”

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Murray Rankin in 2014. The Victoria MP was first elected in a 2012 byelection. Photo: Wikimedia.

“The Greens would have done well if the first-past-the-post system had been eradicated federally. It would now take an NDP government to want to change it.”

Cullen said that Trudeau’s abandonment of the commitment to implement electoral reform during the 2015 election campaign and end the first-past-the-post voting system “hit me hard,” said Cullen. “Trudeau’s decision was brutal, and I think unfair.”

On the Indigenous file, Cullen explained how hopeful he was that Trudeau would make great strides on First Nations rights and title, “and how disappointing that has become because the prime minister had such a great mandate. But I think his failure has resulted in more Canadians becoming more aware of Indigenous issues and the need for progress.”

Cullen’s fear is that Canadians will be “skeptical and more suspicious” of politicians who make future commitments to reconciling with the country’s First Nations, such as the prime minister’s promise to take a government-to-government approach in addressing a myriad of issues, from boil-water advisories to high incarceration rates for Indigenous offenders.

“There was palpable relief after the Harper government, and a great sense of hopefulness with the Trudeau Liberals, which I understood and in part shared. Yet if that hope is betrayed, particularly with young people, the Liberals should not be surprised that the anger is of equal proportion,” said Cullen.

“Trudeau effectively argued that cynicism needed to be addressed in Canadian politics, otherwise we would lose a whole generation of voters coming in. I think he was right, but unfortunately I think he contributed to that cynicism rather than alleviated it,” said Cullen.

Cullen believes the SNC-Lavalin scandal has created permanent damage to the “Trudeau brand.”

“I don’t understand how a government that promised to be so different is representing the very worst fears we have about politics,” he said. “The reason all this is so problematic is that it goes right to the heart of what the Trudeau promise was — to not only be different than Harper, but to be different from previous Liberal governments in terms of corruption and special access for friends. But here we also have a feminist government that was not acting in a very feminist way with Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott and Celina [Caesar-Chavannes].”

Rankin also sees the Liberals’ handling of the SNC-Lavalin situation and their treatment of Wilson-Raybould as “denting” their brand.

“A lot of women and Indigenous people are disgusted because they didn’t think Justin or his people worked that way,” he says.

Cullen said that reports Trudeau had offered Wilson-Raybould the Indigenous Services portfolio showed he “did not understand that someone who worked against the Indian Act can’t be the one defending it — and that surprised me quite a bit.”

“The Liberals continue to be their own worst enemies on this,” he said.

Rankin agreed and noted that Trudeau should have known that offering the Indigenous Services portfolio to Wilson-Raybould was a “non-starter” since it was widely known that she would “never serve as an Indian agent.”

Rankin told The Tyee that he also heard from former federal deputy ministers, who moved to Victoria following their retirement, that former privy council clerk Michael Wernick “crossed the line” when he warned Wilson-Raybould of a “collision” with Trudeau unless she offered a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin.

“To a person, these former mandarins said that it was not appropriate for a neutral public servant to be essentially a surrogate for the prime minister and to threaten the attorney general as she said he did,” said Rankin, who added that Wernick attempted to “change the channel” and introduce “the politics of fear” during his first appearance before the justice committee on the SNC matter in February. Wernick praised the government’s efforts on reconciliation and, pointing to signs accusing Trudeau of treason, warned that increasing extremism could mean “somebody is going to be shot” during the fall election campaign.

It was “unprecedented” for the country’s top civil servant to appear “so partisan” before the committee, said Rankin.

He said the western Canadian perception is that “the Liberals bent over backwards” for SNC-Lavalin because the company is based in Quebec, while the Trudeau government “did very little to help autoworkers in Oshawa, [Ontario] or pipeline workers in Alberta.”

Rankin added that when he served as co-chair of the House justice committee last year, government officials briefed members on the proposed Criminal Code amendment to add remediation agreements with fines rather than trials to address corporate crimes included within the omnibus Bill C-74.

“Not once were we told that there was a SNC-Lavalin context,” he said. The change allowed corporations to avoid criminal prosecution if the government agreed to a settlement.

“I felt stupid that I wasn’t aware of what I was voting on,” said Rankin. “As [former Conservative committee co-chair] Rob Nicholson and I thought, it looked sensible that we would have deferred prosecution agreements to save the time and hassle of getting a difficult white-collar criminal conviction and get a bunch of money into the treasury.”

(Rankin and Nicholson are members of the top-secret National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, which provides oversight of federal agencies involved in security issues, such as CSIS and the RCMP. It has been looking at foreign interference in the coming federal election and defence intelligence, according to Rankin, the first New Democrat to serve on the committee and a Harvard Law School graduate whose master-of-law thesis was on freedom of information and national security.)

Although the RCMP could lay obstruction of justice charges as a result of alleged political interference on the SNC-Lavalin file, Rankin doubts the Mounties would do so in an election year.

Cullen said the partisan behaviour of the Liberal members of the justice committee in dealing with Wilson-Raybould and shutting down the investigation reminded him how important it is that MPs remember their role as parliamentarians.

“If you’re not in cabinet, you’re not the government. Your one job as an MP is to hold the government accountable, as is the case with backbenchers in the U.K,” he said.

But Cullen and Rankin’s reflections on the state of Canadian politics extended beyond SNC-Lavalin.

On the yellow-vest movement, Cullen said that although it may have begun as support for Alberta’s beleaguered oil and gas industry, it has been “co-opted and infiltrated by some straight-out racist elements and that should be disturbing.” He also believes that federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer “really did miss an opportunity to condemn the xenophobic and troubling parts of that movement.”

Rankin believes the federal Conservatives are “breathing a sigh of relief” that former Tory Max Bernier’s People’s Party has carved away the “yellow-vest people, anti-immigrant people, libertarian to-hell-with-marketing-boards people from their base.” High-profile red Tories like deputy Official Opposition leader Lisa Raitt are likely “feeling more comfortable” in the party, he said.

“I don’t see the Conservatives exploiting this resentment in the federal election,” said Rankin. “I think the election will be fought on traditional issues — jobs, housing in our part of the world, the environment, pharmacare, seniors — as well as on the Liberals’ handling of the SNC-Lavalin issue.”

However, Cullen is concerned about the dramatic shift away from the inclusive Prairie populism promulgated by NDP icon Tommy Douglas. “Folks will throw on a populist cloak to hide straight-out xenophobia. But I guess people feel disaffected and unheard. If you simply call them names and ignore them, my experience is that it only gets louder and more volatile.”

Not surprisingly, he believes the NDP are best positioned to address this through its leader, Jagmeet Singh.

Cullen said that Trudeau “can talk about openness and inclusivity, but it’s in a theoretical context because, as he admits, he comes from such a privileged background, while Jagmeet can talk about those things in real terms because he has lived those terms. And despite possessing ‘ambition’ and ‘confidence,’ Trudeau lacks a certain self-reflection that I think is required in leadership. But I don’t think he’s a lightweight,” added Cullen.

“In some ways it’s probably tough being him. I wouldn’t wish fame on my worst enemy, and he’s been famous since Day One. I think he also maybe believes his own press — screaming fans at the airport can go to someone’s head easily,” said Cullen, who believes Trudeau’s quick ascendancy from third-party leader in the House to prime minister could be mirrored by a rapidly escalating descent at the polls this fall.

Cullen does not think it impossible that the NDP could form a minority government in October and have a mandate that would include some of the Liberals’ 2015 campaign promises as well as New Democratic initiatives, including electoral and tax reform, a national energy policy and climate change.

“Over the last 12 months, we’ve been trying to get numbers from the federal government on how much it has spent on oil and gas subsidies and on promoting clean energy,” Cullen said. “They just won’t tell us — and that’s basic climate change 101: stop supporting carbon, start promoting clean.”

Rankin predicted tough times for the Liberals in B.C. during the fall election.

“If you take the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau pipeline policies, which are anathema to many people in coastal British Columbia, as well as Indigenous politics and the failure of electoral reform, which engaged millennials, there is a great disenchantment in my part of the world with Justin Trudeau. He said 2015 would be the last election fought under the first-past-the-post system, but he changed his mind because he liked getting elected with 39.5 per cent of the vote,” he said.

“I think the NDP are going to win every seat on Vancouver Island, except for Elizabeth May’s perhaps. In terms of Vancouver, I think the NDP will make gains in the city because of how the Liberals treated Jody Wilson-Raybould. Their brand has taken a real hit.”

Rankin said the New Democrats will be boosted, as the Liberals were in 2015, by their leader, who is a “rock star when he campaigns.”

“As the Liberals’ fortunes decline, people who are progressives will see us as the real alternative,” said Rankin.

Rankin sees the NDP at least holding the balance of power in a Liberal minority government with a Conservative Official Opposition following the Oct. 21 vote, and expects the New Democrats will pick up seats in Toronto, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.

Both MPs won’t have to worry about election fortunes ahead. For now, they’re looking back on their legacies.

Rankin will miss the camaraderie and “the excitement of debate,” and the work the House justice committee did in such areas as human trafficking and juror trauma. However, he said he would not miss question period. “I find it staged with talking points from the government,” said Rankin. “It’s bad theatre.”

He sees his greatest accomplishment as the lead role he played, as the NDP’s health critic, in securing financial support for thalidomide victims from the Harper Conservative government in 2015, when Rona Ambrose was health minister.

But Rankin is disappointed that he cannot persuade the Trudeau Liberal government to change their cannabis-reform bill to expunge criminal records of pot-possession charges — as his private member’s bill recommends — rather than just offer record suspensions to those previously convicted, which is proposed in the government’s Bill C-93, currently at second reading.

“If the records for cannabis possession of Indigenous and racialized Canadians, who are disproportionately represented, were zapped, they would be able to get their feet on the social ladder,” said Rankin.

Cullen’s regret is personal. He wishes he hadn’t let the “partisanship get too high” with his colleagues. “Oftentimes, after making that kind of mistake I would go find the person and apologize which would be accepted.”

But Cullen added that some of the nicest reactions he received following his announcement not to seek re-election came from those with whom he frequently disagreed on issues. One especially resonates for him.

Mark Penninga, executive director of the Association for Reformed Political Action — a nonpartisan Christian political advocacy organization situated in his riding — wrote an op-ed in the Interior News that despite he and Cullen having “diametrically opposed worldviews,” the MP “exemplified what it means to be an elected representative” and his “willingness to meet with us time and again...[on] controversial issues like euthanasia or abortion... is a breath of fresh air in a political atmosphere where dissent isn’t welcome, ironically even under the banner of tolerance and inclusivity.”

As Cullen told The Tyee, “It’s fine to be liked by people who agree with you. It is particularly rewarding to be respected by people who don’t agree with you.”  [Tyee]

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