Published May 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Let’s talk today about the flapdoodle in Ottawa over the election debate(s).
Q: Do leaders’ debates really matter?
A: Yes, I think they do. We saw that most recently in the Alberta provincial election where the television debate helped turn the tide to Rachel Notley and her New Democrats.
Politicians of all persuasion complain about the lessening of public engagement in the political process. They find it difficult to attract campaign workers and to woo voters to the polls. The leaders’ debate is the one event that breathes real life into a federal election. As many as 10 million Canadians usually tune into the English debate and perhaps 4 million to the French debate. Continue reading
Q: So why is Prime Minister Harper making such a fuss and refusing to participate in any debate that will be organized by the usual suspects – a consortium of national broadcasters?
A: This is complicated, and there are several explanations. It’s partly a question of control. The broadcasters get to control the format, the topics and the selection of questioners. The Conservative government doesn’t – and, as some people may have noticed, control is a pretty big deal to Stephen Harper.
It’s also partly a product of Conservative paranoia about CBC, which is the dominant player in the broadcast consortium. The Tories are convinced the public broadcaster is irredeemably liberal and Liberal – a notion that former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien might find amusingly quaint; the fact is, all prime ministers of whatever stripe, come to dislike the CBC. It’s the nature of the beast.
Lastly, it is not necessarily in the government’s partisan interest to engage in debates (one in each language) that might create so much interest as to drive up voter participation. Low turnouts generally benefit parties in power while high turnouts work to the advantage of opposition parties as fence-sitters come down on the side of change.
Q: Harper says he favours up to five debates (so long as none is organized by the consortium). Does he really mean it?
A: No and yes. Given his druthers, Harper would almost certainly opt for no debates at all. But if he has to debate, the more the merrier. About 20 supplicants have expressed interest in hosting the extra debates, the principal ones being Maclean’s, Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and the private French network, TVA.
Increasing the number of debates would reduce the impact of gaffes in any single debate. Ten million Canadians might watch one English debate. But how many would care enough to watch four or five? How many would watch a consortium-sponsored debate without the prime minister? Audience fragmentation might play into the Tory low-participation game plan.
Conservatives say Harper is relishing the opportunity to take on Justin Trudeau, because he believes he can make mincemeat of the Liberal leader every time they debate. Maybe he can, but underestimating one’s opponent is dangerous in politics. And what about the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair? He is the most proficient debater of the bunch. Does Harper really want to face off against him four or five times? I seriously doubt it.
For the moment, the parties are playing a silly game of political football. What they should be doing is looking for a better way to institutionalize and organize debates. Since 1987, the United States has had a Commission on Presidential Debates that has the legal authority to run presidential and vice-presidential debates. Non-profit and supposedly non-partisan – it is jointly controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties – it has taken much of the political gamesmanship put of the debates system.
It is one model Canada could look at. It would make some sense to establish an all-party committee of Parliament to find a better way to organize debates here, to recommend a body to administer them and to write the new rules into the Canada Elections Act where they would be out of easy reach of broadcasters and election-bent politicians alike.