03/11/2012 11:20 EDT | Updated 05/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Mulcair Defends NDP 'Opportunity' In Debate


The seven federal NDP leadership hopefuls are squaring off against each other for the last time before the party's convention, with Thomas Mulcair again coming under fire at Sunday's debate in Vancouver.

The subject of the sixth and final debate is "Opportunities for youth and New Canadians," and is being moderated by Barbara Yaffe, columnist with the Vancouver Sun.

Yaffe referred to Jack Layton's last letter to Canadians in which he spoke to young Canadians: "I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today." wrote Layton.

Yaffe asked the candidates what they would do to help Canada's youth.

Mulcair, a Quebec MP who is widely seen as the frontrunner in this race, said it is important for the NDP to reach out to Canada's youth because 65 per cent of young people between the ages of 18 to 25 did not vote in the last federal election.

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton said she was proud to come from what she called "the Jack Layton generation, a generation that was inspired to think about politics differently, to think about leadership differently."

British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen, in turn called for the party to consider proposing lowering the voting age to 16.

During the first round of question period-style questions, Peggy Nash, Brain Topp, Niki Ashton, and Paul Dewar all pointed their question to their rival Mulcair.

At the heart of their questions was Mulcair's plan to move beyond a traditional social democratic base.

"We have an opportunity to reach out beyond our traditional base and unite all progressives under the NDP banner," said Mulcair.

When the race started there were nine leadership candidates vying to lead the official Opposition and take over from interim party leader Nycole Turmel. Now, seven are left: Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Martin Singh and Brian Topp.

British Columbia will play a big role in electing a successor to Jack Layton, who died of cancer last August. The province is home to roughly one-third of the party's 128,351 members, the largest such group in the country.

"This is the most important debate within the six-mohth leadership contest. This is the last opportunity candidates will have to make their direct appeal to the membership and to the country," Brad Lavigne, principal secretary for the NDP leader, told CBC News.

"This is their closing argument, and I think you'll see if anybody wants to shake things up, it will be during today's debate."

Michael Prince, a professor with the University of Victoria, said members are asking themselves whether they should support candidates who want the party to stick to its core social democratric principles, or get behind those who want to modernize it to attract more voters.

Prince said New Democrats are asking, "How do we woo those disaffected Liberals to stay with us or come to us?"

"So there's a really fundamental debate there about strategy and the direction of the party," he told CBC News.

Prince said this issue came up when Layton won the leadership himself in 2003, and he said talk of moving in a new direction likely would have come up as well, if Layton had lived, as the party approached the next election, with the hope of forming the government.

New Democrats are currently in the process of mailing in their ballots or voting online. Those who attend the leaderhisp convention in Toronto — and some 3,000 are expected to turn up — will be able to vote there.

The new leader will be announced at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on March 24.

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