When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Britain, she bluntly rejected televised debates between party leaders at election time. Her reasoning was this: “We’re not electing a president, we’re choosing a government.”
Essentially, Thatcher thought the laser focus on party leaders performing on TV diminished the importance of party policy and platforms, and that TV performance by leaders is inappropriate in a parliamentary democracy.
Well, we’re stuck with them now, here, there and everywhere. The Federal Leaders’ Debate 2019 (Monday, 7 p.m. ET, multiple channels) is upon us.
The history of TV debates in parliamentary democracies is relatively short and not much studied. Search for serious study of TV debates and their impact, and you’ll find that the field is dominated by scrutiny of U.S. presidential debates.
As sure as the sun rises on the day of an election debate, somebody will write about the seismic impact of the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, the first such debate to take place. It will be mentioned that those who heard it on radio believed Richard Nixon won and those who saw it on TV thought John Kennedy won emphatically. That assertion is now challenged, since the sample of radio listeners surveyed was small. Still, Kennedy believed TV viewers clinched it for him, as indeed did Nixon, who declined to participate in TV debates when he ran for president in 1968 and 1972.
So, it’s the mercurial impact of TV images that matter then, for good or ill. It’s all so mercurial, mind you, that there’s very little the leaders can do to influence the perception of people watching at home. No matter how well coached, the built-in personality, tone and comportment of leaders cannot be altered dramatically.
Television can be cruel to politicians. It exposes hesitation and ignorance about topics, and highlights them. The person is the message. The message is the person.
Live TV requires participation or completion by the audience. That is, the viewer projects much onto certain people on TV. Some politicians have an excellent relationship with the TV camera. It’s really a sublimated message they generate by being completely confident, unruffled, relaxed and having nothing to hide.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is very good at it. Until, that is, he’s under pressure, and he’s under way more pressure now than four years ago. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer isn’t good at it. He’s good at appearing to be above the fray and he can seem folksy, but the folksiness can seem forced. His enemy is the mistrust viewers might have and that TV highlights.
A lot of punditry about our election debates focuses on the need for a knock-out “gotcha” moment. These moments, if they happen, matter most to the partisans watching. It invigorates them. But by the time a TV election debate happens, the theatre of the TV debate is really aimed at undecided voters. For all the questions asked of the leaders and all the umbrage taken by one leader at another leader’s assertions, people watching at home have only one question: What kind of country do I want to live in? The leader who appears to have a direct connection with the viewer and issues an invitation to collaborate on the future of the country, an invitation that an undecided voter would accept, is the true winner.
On this occasion though, it’s the viewers who are the actual winners. Fifteen years ago, writing in The Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson had looked at the U.S. presidential debate between George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, and wrote this: “Contrast Thursday’s exercise in U.S. civics with the shouting match that passed for a television debate during the Canadian election campaign – and the one before that, and the one before that. Our debates have descended into irritating, catcalling exercises in grandstanding, for which the networks are at least partly to blame.”
He was right. Now, we have official debates organized by the Leaders’ Debates Commission with the broadcasters. Monday’s debate will feature six leaders. Apart from Trudeau and Scheer, they are NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier. Five major topics will be covered in two hours and include five questions submitted by Canadians.
In the English debate, the distinct sections will be guided by moderators from multiple outlets – Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, Dawna Friesen of Global News, Althia Raj, Ottawa bureau chief of HuffPost Canada, Lisa LaFlamme of CTV News and Rosemary Barton of CBC News.
It’s high time we took federal election TV debates with the seriousness they deserve. Nobody wins until the viewers decide. Margaret Thatcher was wrong – we help choose a government by watching a serious debate on TV.