Under law there is no need for debates during elections. That being the case it is the charitable donation of media companies and political parties. While these groups should be expected to have some level of altruism it should be remembered that that only extends so far. At the moment is seems the three main party leaders will be assembled once and put on the major television stations of Ontario. Given the importance of this election it is somewhat stunning that our prospective premiers will only directly challenge each other and face intense scrutiny once.
At the start of every campaign we have no idea when the debate(s) will be or how many there will be. Sometimes it only seems that tradition forces them to happen at all. The Northern Debate being held in Thunder Bay will only include Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) and Andrea Horwath (ONDP – Hamilton Centre). Mr. Hudak (PCPO – Niagara West – Glanbrook) says that “scheduling conflicts” block him from attending, which is nonsense.
The hands-off approach to leaders’ debates is unacceptable as they have become critical in the outcome of elections but are precariously implemented. Like elections, debates should be formalized and administered similarly by Elections Ontario.
One caveat I would add is that broadcast channels, except for TVO, should not be compelled to broadcast them and provide these debates online for streaming. Perhaps one should be reserved for mandatory broadcast, but those are more minor details.
The Quebec 2012 elections provided a fascinating framework for how debates should be run. There were debates that included all four of the major party leader, including Quebec Solidaire, a minor party in Quebec. Then the leaders were paired with each other for one-on-one debates. The debates became a week in the campaign and provided intense scrutiny and provided pared down discussions so that the issue of too many speakers was avoided.
Deciding during an election how many debates there should be and who should be invited is the worst possible time. The parties have a distinct interest in the number of debates and who should be allowed to attend. Media has limited interest in broadcasting five debates and losing valuable advertising revenue. This is way a non-partisan commission should oversee the process.
Finally, the Green Party leader, Mike Schreiner, should be included in any debate. In the local ridings the Greens are routinely included because they are credible candidates and not out on the fringe. The Green Party of Ontario is fielding a full slate of candidates and has produced a real policy platform that Ontarians deserve to hear about. Their exclusion does not make sense. The arguments advanced to exclude them could be equally applied to one of the three major parties.
We would do well to challenge the status quo by reforming (or creating) law around debates in Ontario. Democracy is about the sharing of ideas and coming to consensus. Limiting the voices heard in the public sphere directly impairs that. Debates are too important to be left in the hands of politicians.