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COMMENTARY · 11th March 2012
Merv Ritchie
CBC’s Christine Birak referred to Nathan Cullen as the “Dark Horse” in the NDP leadership race. As much as this label appears to be a bit of a racial slur it has been used in political contests for generations for the unexpected candidate to come out on top and win. Cullen may be the ‘Dark Horse” to political junkies but to Canadians and young people he is the “White Knight”.

The first question of the evening was the most exciting. The moderator asked each candidate to explain how they would get more young people involved in politics. As each candidate attempted to answer she would interject and try to redirect them to answer the actual question. No one but Nathan Cullen actually answered the question directly. But he didn’t just answer it he provided examples of how he had already brought more young people directly into the political process and then provided an answer to the moderators question that sent shock waves across the country; lower the voting age to 16.

“If we want young people voting at the ballot box we need to consider lowering the voting age. We should talk about young people who are connected and who realize that the issues we’re talking about matter”, stated Cullen after he explained how his ‘Create Your Canada’ program in his Riding’s high schools brought motions to the floor of the House of Commons.

The moderator interjected, “Lower the age too?”

“I think 16 is fine. If we can force them into the army at 17, let’s consider giving them the right to vote at 16.” One could see the expressions on some of the other candidates, as the camera panned, showing expressions of shock. It seemed that at this first question Cullen had taken the lead and stepped far outside the box. Now everyone was going to have to play catch up.

Cullen continued, “I think this is talking about respect. They don’t need a pat on the head. They don’t need a talk about how they’re the greatest natural resource and then be treated like garbage.”

“We should show them the respect they deserve.” stated Cullen.

Every man, woman and child watching this display of honesty could relate. Every person over 18 was once 14 and most all have memories of not being respected and appreciated. The young mind may not have always been correct in their assessment of a given situation but then neither are many people who are over 40 years old. Respect is the greatest attribute we could provide anyone. With this first question Nathan Cullen won the debate. After that it was all uphill for the other candidates.

The laughter and engaging parts of the debate were once again all surrounding Cullen. As Niki Ashton kept referring to him as Mr. Cullen, he asked her jokingly why she was being so formal as they had known each other for years. As she continued to say “Mr. Cullen” he then responded by addressing her as “Ms. Ashton”, which drew laughter from the audience and the stage. Then he added, “I guess there’ll be no Christmas Cards.”

The exchange between Cullen and Ashton was regarding Cullen’s plan to cooperate with the Liberals and the Greens to get rid of Harper. He explained how Harper was not the old Progressive Conservative Party but, as he stated, a “completely different animal”. He stated the first person to propose this idea of cooperation was “That heretic Tommy Douglas” cynically referring to a founder of the CCF the forerunner of the NDP. “Canadians are not partisan” he stated and then he got even more applause when he proclaimed how out of touch politicians are as ‘more Canadians belong to the Mountain Equipment Co-op than all political party’s combined.’

Thomas Mulcair, the perceived front runner in the contest, barely answered a question directly. Although he looked at the camera and didn’t constantly read from a prepared script, he avoided questions and continually redirected to prepared statements. Most of the challenges he received were regarding his desire to change the direction of the Party. At every question, when asked how and in what way, he performed a Stephen Harper look alike, misdirecting and avoidance. He did get the most questions asked by other candidates, a total of five of the fourteen asked, and Cullen received the second highest number of questions, three.

This tally of questions has been used to suggest which person is posing the current greatest threat to the other candidates. If this is assessed today with the same criteria the count is exciting for Cullen. Paul Dewar was not asked a single question by the other candidates so he is obviously not a threat at all. Peggy Nash and Niki Ashton each received two questions. Brian Topp was only asked one question as was Martin Singh. Both of these questions were posed by Nathan Cullen. Cullen asked Topp, quoting by page number reference, on his policies regarding co-operation with other Party’, s as Cullen was suggesting. All Topp could say was he just didn’t think Cullen’s strategy would work, “I don’t like this one” but didn’t offer any explanations to the contradiction Cullen pointed out, quoting from another page reference.

Singh was the first candidate to ask Cullen a direct question and again it was directed at Cullen’s plan to cooperate to defeat the Conservative Party referring to the success achieved in Quebec during the last election. “I’m shocked that you misinterpret so much of what happened in Quebec on May second.” began Cullen, “Progressives found a way to say no to the cynical and division politics. […] I know a lot of partisan people but I know a lot more political people and the political people have looked at this government and realized we have to do something different. As New Democrats for 50 years we have been asking Canadians to think differently. I’m asking New Democrats to do the same.”

Singh stumbled just for a second and then carried on by challenging Cullen on the corruption of the Liberals and how the NDP will be saddled with charges of hypocrisy after exposing the Liberal record.

“”It seems strange to me”, stated Cullen, “After all the evidence that we’ve had. When we made a budget deal in 2005 for 5 billion dollars Canadians rewarded this party. When we sought a coalition government the pundits and all the experts told us, particularly in Quebec, we would be punished for, as you say, being associated with the [liberal] party. The evidence is different. The evidence says Canadians like it when Partys work together to get something done. I’m a pragmatist, I believe in getting something done. That’s why I joined this race, that’s why I joined this Party.”

Singh however receive nothing but disdain from Cullen as he asked the only question Singh was to receive at this debate. Cullen pointed out he accused another candidate of lying and specifically asked for an apology on behalf of the other candidate. Singh avoided and refused the apology and Cullen then refused to even dignify Singh with a follow up question. “If that’s your answer, I don’t have a supplemental.” Later, in a media scrum he was more blunt. “I wasn’t going give him any more air time, frankly, to carry on with these insults to a friend of mine, a proud and obviously long serving New Democrat.”

Cullen even challenged professional organizations who he suggested were behind the inability for immigrants to be engaged in their professional careers and find themselves driving taxis instead of contributing to Canadian society.

Cullen answered the questions directly and listened intently to the other candidates. It was this sharp, honed skill, which allowed him to offer quick retorts and quips. Cullen wasn’t just the most informed and intelligent presenter at this last debate he was also the most entertaining.

Even CBC commented immediately after on his exchange with Niki Ashton that had the entire podium line up laughing. Christine Birak was chuckling herself as she recalled the moment Cullen turned and addressed Niki as “Ms. Aston”.

Like every debate, from the first to the last, Nathan Cullen was strong and confident. He answered the questions asked directly and challenged the others on their statements. Cullen was never flustered or caught off guard, he challenged the others with respect and dignity but also held everyone to account. Even the ‘sacred cows’ of the professional organizations were not outside of his sights.

Anyone watching these debates and seriously considering each candidate separately will see Cullen as a man who will do exactly as he stated; politics differently.

He is that political 'White Knight' Canadians have been looking for, and as CBC’s Christine Birak stated, he will be riding onto stage on that political 'Dark Horse'.