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Television We need to be better at TV election debates. A lot better

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, centre, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photograph before the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

There needs to be an investigation. An investigation into the fraud, hoodwinking and hornswoggle (look it up) that going’s on in this federal election campaign period.

I refer to the fraud that was the Maclean’s/Citytv National Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night. That was excruciating. Nobody seemed ready. Nothing there seemed ready. The studio set looked as though it would soon be used for a paint-store commercial. You know what I mean – it was so off-white, off-yellow bright that somebody would stroll through, wield a paintbrush and illustrate how you make a room where interrogations take place look a little bit inviting.

We have a history of not taking election debates seriously in this country. As though the gravitas needed for a substantial debate was in short supply hereabouts and nobody knows where to acquire some.

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Thank heavens the federal government – yes, the current one – established an independent commission last year to organize leaders’ debates. The coming official debates organized by the Leaders’ Debates Commission have got to be better than the flimsy excuse for a debate that unfolded the other night. The English-language debate (Oct. 7) and the French debate (Oct. 10) will take place at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. That should help with gravitas. Fingers crossed.

Don’t get me started on Thursday’s TV event. There was a lot of high-dudgeon nattering by Andrew Scheer, Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh about Justin Trudeau not being there. Well, we could see that, actually. We did notice and reminding viewers every two minutes was the sort of stating-the-bloody-obvious that puts people off politicians.

As the debate, such as it was, creaked onward, you could see why Trudeau decided not to attend. Because it was rinky-dink. Similar to an episode of Adults Campaigning For Office Say The Darndest Things, including the whines, “I didn’t cut you off when you were talking” and “I didn’t say things that aren’t true.”

Scheer stood in the middle trying to look serene. He looked taller than you’d think. Listen, people watching this kind of wing-ding on TV are very superficial. They stop listening and wonder how tall Scheer is and why they never noticed before. He knitted his hands together constantly and you had to admire his firmness in never using that smirk, which is his off-putting default facial expression. You can imagine his mom giving him a treat for achieving that, but it would be a very little treat because, as he’ll tell anyone, he grew up poor. Like I said, the perspective can be very superficial at this stage.

May was off to one side, glowering. Singh was on the other side, attempting feistiness like nobody’s business. Mostly, mind you, they talked over each other and over Scheer. As a result, nobody got to land the knockout punch that viewers hope for, and the backroom people pray for. It’s infuriating, watching a debate descend into a babble of heckling.

Moderator Paul Wells was ineffective in controlling the babble and heckle. Perhaps because it wasn’t set up as a genuine debate. It was a stunt.

Part of the stunt was a series of regular interruptions of the leaders heckling each other. A Citytv person presented some nonsense about Twitter and Facebook polling and reaction. Don’t get me started. What’s happening on social media during an early debate is a bunch of fanboys and fangirls trolling each other. The Rotary Club was consulted. Who among us has not approached voting in a federal election without wondering, “Where does the Rotary Club stand?” A group of Indigenous leaders, all male, were consulted, too, while the reporter told them they only had a few seconds to speak. Stunt-stuff all the way.

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The 2015 election was blighted by the replacement of official debates with a series of stunts. Remember that rigmarole? The Conservative Party said it would not participate in the broadcast-consortium debates and there followed much bickering and confusion.

Obviously we can do better. As a country, as a parliamentary democracy. One hopes those involved in organizing the official debates under the auspices of the Leaders’ Debates Commission paid attention and investigated the rinky-dink, gravitas-free zone of last Thursday. Don’t get me started.

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