Opinion: NDP must resist the allure of Tory-style message control

Skeena - Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen has never been shy when talking to the media, but Thomas Mulcair could be a different story.

The first time I met Nathan Cullen it was in the Parliament building’s fourier, just outside the House of Commons.

I was still in journalism school at the time doing my mandatory internship at a small weekly rag called The Hill Times, which reports exclusively of the goings-on  inside that impressive and massive building (if you’ve never seen the Parliament in person, I highly recommend that you do).

Since I was an unpaid intern desperate for a good job reference, naturally the paper I was interning for had me do the work that no one else wanted. What they had me work on was their annual Savvy, Stylish, Sexy MP Survey, where basically I had to ask parliamentarians which of their colleagues they thought were the sexiest, had the best hair, did the best in Question Period, were the best dressed; you get the picture.

The survey may be of rather dubious journalistic value, but its something that the folks who work on Parliament Hill and in the national media find entertaining, so the paper does it every year without fail.

The worst part was trying to get MPs to actually answer these questions. No one would blame them for not wanting to answer them, the questions – while entertaining to actually ask – are kind of embarrassing, silly and don’t have anything to do with matters of real importance.

My strategy for getting MPs to do the survey was to send in a note with a parliamentary Paige to one sitting in the House of Commons asking them to come out and talk to me. Invariably they would come out after making me wait for half-an-hour,  refuse to come out at all, or come out and decide the survey wasn’t for them.

Then one day I sent one of those notes to Nathan Cullen. He was out within five minutes and answered every one of my 50 ridiculous questions. It was the first indication of something I think is his most valuable quality as an MP: his candor.

In an age where Harper-esque message control is the golden rule of Canadian politics, its almost quaint to find a MP that not only doesn’t mind talking to the media, but also actually answers questions without falling back on talking points or skirting around questions if they’re not phrased just so. But this is what Nathan Cullen does.

Every two weeks, Cullen voluntarily submits himself to a no-holds-barred media scrum with all of the media outlets here in Northern BC. Whenever I participate, I’m never asked to submit my questions beforehand and never asked to stick to a set topic.  I can ask him anything and he actually tries to answer. Even as the prospect of becoming Opposition leader became more and more realistic, he promised to keep holding our bi-weekly get-together.

It would be enough to make the PMO’s media wanglers laugh with disbelief.

Whether you agree with his policies or not, having an MP who is not afraid to say what he actually thinks is a precious thing, and I’m afraid we’re in danger of losing that candor.

During his entire leadership campaign, Thomas Mulcair did not give a single media interview, not one. Now Mulcair is the NDP’s leader and I fear that because this strategy has worked so well for him, he may give in to the temptation to establish a message control regime within his party similar to that in the Conservative Party.

I’ve interviewed more than a few Conservative MPs, even  two or three cabinet ministers, and every time it feels like one of those horrible automated telephone lines. No matter what your concern is or what button you press you’re always going to get the same set of pre-recorded responses.

Much of the NDP’s willingness to talk to the media in the past was based on the fact that they really didn’t have much to lose from an MP’s gaffe. With actual power and governance firmly within the party’s sights, the temptation is going to be to take steps to eliminate that possibility. If they do, and  Nathan Cullen goes along with it, it will be a big loss for Skeena – Bulkley Valley and for Canadian democracy in general.