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B.C. MP Nathan Cullen speaks during the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2011. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)
B.C. MP Nathan Cullen speaks during the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2011. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)

Lawrence Martin

In the NDP race, Cullen's the one to watch Add to ...

It’s Sunday, Halifax. The New Democratic Party leadership candidates are in debate. The contest has been written off as a snoozefest thus far. All candidates holding hands. That sort of thing.

There’ve been no surprises. Except Nathan Cullen.

The 39-year-old MP from northern British Columbia, bald as the hood on your Lexus, likes making bad-hair-day jokes. He delights the audience with one such offering, then turns serious on the question of retirement security. “The next time the Prime Minister wants to announce that he’s going after seniors and does so in another country, he should stay there!”

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The applause meter rises with that broadside. It rises again with a Cullen projectile against the government’s planned purchase of zillion-dollar warplanes. “For the price of just three of those jets we could lift every senior out of poverty in this country!”

He moves on – servility to the oil industry. Although oil prices are at an all-time high, the Conservatives will subsidize companies $1.3-billion to develop the tar sands, he protests. Those rich companies “need nothing from this government!”

If the NDP race is a bore, it’s not because of Mr. Cullen. In an eight-contestant race, standing out from the pack is a challenge. But Mr. Cullen is upstaging everyone. He’s a skilled communicator, crisp and witty with an intensity of commitment. He’s also not afraid to go – and this is seen as his weakness – where other NDPers fear to tread.

The race is about who can best stand up to Stephen Harper. Who has the strength, the intellect, the guts. Mr. Cullen is showing, along with Thomas Mulcair, that he might have it. Mr. Mulcair was a force again on Sunday. When Paul Dewar, no slouch as a candidate, challenged him on his position on bulk water exports, the Quebecker, with indignant precision, mercilessly took him apart. It was a crystallizing moment. Mr. Cullen was looking on as if to say, “Whew, did you see that?”

The race is also about who can hold Quebec and Mr. Mulcair, the former Liberal Quebec cabinet minister, has it over the others on that qualification.

But the fight is also, as Mr. Cullen sees it, about more than just the health of the New Democratic Party. It’s about all Canadian progressives and how they can find a way to stop the resolute march of their opposite number.

The trilingual Mr. Cullen, who worked in community and economic development in Latin America and Africa, is the one leadership candidate running on a platform of co-operation with the Liberals. In ridings held by Conservatives, he wants the Grits and the NDP to pool their resources, holding joint nomination meetings to put up one opposing candidate. The modified merger plan is not to the liking of other contestants, who challenged Mr. Cullen on it.

Listen, he told them, the Harper Conservatives have another four years and if progressives don’t co-operate, it will be another eight. Do they really want to be around to see the kind of Canada that will have emerged by that time?

Mr. Cullen referenced Mr. Mulcair’s Liberal background. He said he didn’t judge him with any suspicion on that basis, but only on the fact of their common ground as progressives. Mr. Mulcair got a bit testy, thinking Mr. Cullen was calling into question his NDP bona fides. He wasn’t. He was saying they have a common world view and that was enough.

Indeed, what is important is that while they do not agree on merger options, both these strong candidates share the goal, more so than the others, of wishing to broaden the NDP tent to the Liberal middle.

Mr. Cullen is not likely to win. His modified-merger offering, while reasonable, alienates too many of the party’s rank and file. He is ahead of his time.

But come convention time in March, he could find himself in the role of kingmaker and, following it, deputy leader. If the party is looking for a powerhouse duo, it could do a lot worse than an east-west Mulcair-Cullen combination.

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