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Why it's not so bad if this is the last televised Ontario leaders' debate

When Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath square off next Tuesday night, it could very well be the last time a leaders' debate takes over the provincial airwaves.

It's a poorly kept secret that some television networks were reluctant to devote an hour-and-a-half of prime time during this fall's campaign to a commercial-free debate between provincial politicians. Ultimately, the broadcasters' consortium – which includes CBC, CTV, Global, Sun News Network and TVOntario – settled on an early-evening slot nine days before the election.

But people who were close to the negotiations have speculated that the networks won't play along again next time.

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If that proves to be the case, the broadcasters will no doubt be lambasted for their lack of civic responsibility. But perhaps, however self-interested their decision, they'll be doing us all a favour.

Debates remain the best mid-campaign tool to engage an increasingly disengaged public. But their efficacy seems to be fading, partly because we've clung to an anachronistic model for them.

There is little point in pretending that, when it comes to engaging voters, blanket coverage of a single debate remains as useful as it once was. With hundreds of digital channels, and TiVo, and the Internet, you can't force people to watch a political event just by putting it on more than one station. If anything, trying to do so is becoming counterproductive.

In its current form, the TV debate has evolved – or deteriorated – into something that's often pretty off-putting. Only having to make it through 90 minutes, the leaders can stick rigidly to their talking points, without ever going more than an inch deep on the issues.

That, in many ways, is a reflection of the way entire campaigns are currently run. Discipline is at such a premium that most leaders spend their days repeating the same messages over and over; the only things that change are their backdrops. While not solely responsible for declining voter turnout, the monotony surely isn't helping.

One way to cut through it would be to force the leaders to engage with each other more often. If campaigns involved several debates – each one, perhaps, focused on specific issues rather than trying to skip through all of them in one night – policy discussions might get beyond the mind-numbingly superficial.

The current system not only fails to encourage that; it actively prevents it. Given the difficulty in scheduling one debate this year, there's no way all the consortium members could be convinced to air two or three more. But to participate in the consortium, broadcasters have to agree not to air any leaders' debates on their own. And to get that one debate widely aired, the leaders themselves have to agree not to appear anywhere else on television debating each other.

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For that reason, when Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath participate in a northern-issues debate in Thunder Bay on Friday (Mr. McGuinty declined to participate), the only way to watch it – even if you live in northern Ontario – will be in-person or on a web-cast.

Take all this into account, and the potential unwillingness of the consortium to participate in future provincial campaigns starts to look more like an opportunity than a problem.

Freed from the strange sort of monopoly that currently exists, broadcasters that actually want to cover elections in prime time – the TVOntarios and CP24s of the world – could try to lure the leaders more often. And voters who were interested in learning more about their options would have greater chance to do so.

There is no single cure for what ails the modern provincial election campaign. But neither is there good reason just to continue blindly doing things the way they've traditionally been done. Many other industries have adapted to the era of consumer choice; politics might as well do likewise.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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