Out of nowhere it appears we're about to change how debates are conducted in this country. If I understand the timeline of events correctly the Conservatives rejected the debates hosted by the Media Consortium in favour of up to five debates put on by any organization who wishes to coordinate them. Federal Leaders' debates are problematic in this country. Consider the fact that in this country we are lucky to get two debates (one in English, one in French) compared to the United States where candidates for president are expected to debate endlessly for the nomination and an independent commission structures, I believe, three debates during the final weeks of the campaign.
|The scene at the last federal debate.|
An independent commission is likely the model Canada should be moving towards. The eleventh hour negotiations gives way too much leverage to the governing party, or the party in first place. Rules should be set months, or perhaps years in advance so that everyone goes into it fairly. Add in the question of who should be allowed to participate at all and you raise all sorts of other problems.
The move by Prime Minister Harper to make changes to the debates is not at all surprising. Susan Delacourt does a pretty fantastic job laying out why Harper would like to see changes.
The people I have spoken to about this expressed some cautious optimism, but I have my concerns. As Delacourt writes the Conservatives want the debates to be held in the summer, months before the election is to be officially called with a great deal of time for the public memory to fade if Harper comes across poorly. A bump in the polls for Mulcair, Trudeau or May would long vanish when the leaves fall from the trees and Canadians start to seriously make up their minds.
This approach raises real questions. Will the parties try to insist on networks and moderators that would be more friendly to them? What concessions might be demanded? Getting away from the Consortium's debates might be for the best but launching into this uncertain future is not exactly encouraging. So far two debates seem approved, one by Maclean's and Rogers and another by Quebec's TVA.
This causes me to wonder about the local debates. Remember that Canada won't have one election in October but 338. I seem to recall that debates were somewhat frequent in my former riding as community organizations all put forward their own 'meet the candidates/debate' events. By the end of it the candidates knew each other quite well. It was even collegial despite the fact they often disagreed profoundly. That's not always the case. MPs in safe ridings have little incentive to be berated. Local media and community groups should be considering their own approach to their own local debates and how they might be improved as the election nears.
Debates are not the be all and end all. The ability to give a witty retort reveals very little about who has the best policies, ideas and temperament. That said it gives the candidates a chance to stand equally before the public and be seen. That alone is important. The challenge is to make that valuable.