HALIFAX - NDP MP Nathan Cullen found himself on the defence Sunday during a party leadership debate in Halifax over his proposal to join forces with the Liberals in the next election.

In a rare show of sparks between the eight leadership hopefuls, Martin Singh, Thomas Mulcair and Peggy Nash each took swipes at Cullen's idea.

"Why don't you think it's enough to get progressives to rally around our banner?" Mulcair asked Cullen.

"Why would you shoot for the bronze medal when you know that Canadians share our goals, share our vision?"

Nash said the proposal would strip Canadians of their democratic right to vote for the party of their choice.

"We had a historic breakthrough in the last election. Why not build on that?" the Toronto MP said.

"Let's not look at a rear-view mirror."

In response, the British Columbia MP said his ultimate goal is to oust the federal Conservatives from power and bring in a proportional representation voting system if he were elected prime minister.

"Let's all recognize the thing that we know: that the current voting system we have in this country is broken and flawed," he said.

"No one can question my faith in this party. No one can question my work ethic over the last number of years in building up in places that we thought we had no hope."

Cullen has said he would allow local NDP riding associations to decide whether it's in their interest to hold joint nomination meetings with other parties in Tory-held ridings.

"I have faith in our people to make that decision," he said.

Niki Ashton, Paul Dewar, Romeo Saganash and Brian Topp are also vying to replace the late Jack Layton.

Other debates every two weeks are planned in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver. NDP members will choose their new leader on March 24 at a convention in Toronto.

Layton died of cancer last August just months after leading the NDP to 103 seats and official Opposition status for the first time in the party's history.