OTTAWA — Veteran New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen is shrugging off the fact Jagmeet Singh is in no hurry to sit in the House of Commons, choosing to endorse the member of the Ontario legislature in his bid to lead the federal NDP.
Cullen, who himself ran against eventual winner Tom Mulcair in 2012, said Wednesday he is confident the NDP's current team of MPs — 44 all told, including three running against Singh — can hold the Liberal government to account until 2019, if necessary.
While Singh has said he'd be inclined to wait until then to run in the federal election, he has left the door open to running earlier in a byelection, adding that he's open to ideas on "where it makes sense to run."
Even though the NDP was cheered for its work in the Commons prior to the election, Justin Trudeau triumphed nonetheless, despite having spent little time on the floor of the House, Cullen said.
"Voters, in the end, determined they had a relationship and understood his policies better than they did ours, so he's prime minister," he said.
"I have no concerns at all today as I stand with Jagmeet about the concept of us going through to the next election with the incredible team that we have talked about."
Jack Layton did not have a seat when he became leader, Cullen added.
Earlier this week, Mulcair said it would be a "heck of a lot better" if his successor had immediate access to the Commons in order to face off with Trudeau.
"I think it's important to have a seat in the House of Commons if we're leading a political party," Mulcair said. "I think that ideally, you know, you should be there."
Mulcair also said questions about his lack of a federal seat came up quickly when he became Layton's Quebec lieutenant, prompting him to run in a federal byelection in 2007.
Charlie Angus, an Ontario MP who is also running against Singh, has also said he thinks the leader needs to be in the Commons.
"I was surprised that Jagmeet said he didn't think he needed to be in Parliament until 2019," Angus said Monday in an interview. "That's his choice ... my focus is Parliament, what we are going to do there and the building on the ground from that."
The other candidates are Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Quebec MP Guy Caron.
Singh has been able to garner the most support from the current federal caucus — a total of 11 MPs, including Cullen, who said he was swayed in part by Singh's commitment to issues like electoral reform and climate change.
Some observers have suggested that Singh — a practising Sikh with a penchant for brightly coloured turbans — could be in for a rough ride in Quebec, where overt displays of religious faith can be a political liability.
"It is not the turban itself — it is what it means," Bloc Quebecois Leader Martine Ouellet said earlier this week. "In Quebec, what we decided in the 60s … we decided to separate religion and the state. That's really important for us."
Quebec NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice, who is not publicly backing any particular candidate in the leadership race, acknowledged that the separation of church and state has been a long-standing issue in Quebec.
Personally, he said, he respects those who want to show their faith.
"I think it's their freedom," Boulerice said. "I don't have any problem with that. I don't want political decisions being driven by only religious point of view, but that has nothing to do with the signs that you are showing off or not."
He also said he believes in the ability of Quebecers to listen to what Singh has to offer.
"The ideas are important," he said. "I believe that Quebecers are tolerant and inclusive and will accept that."
Quebec MP Guy Caron and Manitoba MP Niki Ashton are also seeking the party's top job along with Singh and Angus. Caron has the backing of eight MPs, while Ashton has received nods from five. Angus is supported by two.
Voting for a new federal NDP leader began on Monday, with the winner to be declared some time next month.
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