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From left, Liberal Leader Robert Ghiz, Progressive Conservative Leader Olive Crane, NDP Leader James Rodd, Green Party Leader Sharon Labchuk and Island Party Leader Billy Cann participate in a debate in Charlottetown on Sept. 22, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
From left, Liberal Leader Robert Ghiz, Progressive Conservative Leader Olive Crane, NDP Leader James Rodd, Green Party Leader Sharon Labchuk and Island Party Leader Billy Cann participate in a debate in Charlottetown on Sept. 22, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Letter from PEI

There's no debate about need for debates in PEI election Add to ...

Political junkies watching leaders’ debates salivate at the prospect of the proverbial knock-out punch.

The game-changing riposte is so rare that people still talk about Brian Mulroney’s evisceration of John Turner – 27 years ago – over patronage appointments. But the risk is real every time leaders go head to head.

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The stakes are even higher on Prince Edward Island, where the intimate nature of politics results in a remarkable number of debates over the course of a campaign. In the 2007 race there was somewhere close to 10 face-offs. The number in the current campaign could rival that total.

That’s a lot of chances to slip up.

The situation is a far cry from other jurisdictions, where there might be only one debate over the course of a campaign. In Ontario, which is also mid-race, New Democrats and Tories looked to score points by trying to goad the Liberals into a second debate happening Friday. The Grits steadfastedly refused.

On the island, though, intensive face-time is what voters demand.

“There is a really deep-rooted public expectation that people running for office have to be accountable and available,” said Ian Dowbiggin, a professor of history at the University of Prince Edward Island and keen observer of provincial politics.

He believes this is due to a number of factors, including the island’s smaller ridings, which make citizens more familiar with their representatives. And, as with elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, patronage systems make political engagement and voting important.

“Here on Prince Edward Island voters feel like they have a greater stake in the electoral outcome,” Prof. Dowbiggin said. “People feel it’s important ... because employment may result.”

The debates so far have included face-offs organized by groups as diverse as the province’s Federation of Labour and Tourism Industry Association. A CBC debate planned for Wednesday was cancelled when Progressive Conservative Leader Olive Crane refused to participate unless the leaders of all parties were invited. A full-slate debate with the five leaders was to be televised Thursday night by Eastlink.

Other debates are forthcoming before island voters go the polls Oct. 3.

Coming atop a punishing campaign schedule for the leaders, this offers a lot of opportunity for error. And each time the leaders stand at the podia they would be well to remember Mr. Turner wilting as his opponent lashed him for “an avowal of failure ... a confession of non-leadership.”

Follow on Twitter: @moore_oliver

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