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Strengthen democratic discourse with one-on-one leaders debates (iStockphoto)
Strengthen democratic discourse with one-on-one leaders debates (iStockphoto)

Martin Goldfarb

A good political leaders debate should be like reality TV Add to ...

As I think about political leaders debates, I'm forced to think about what makes successful television. I look at today's leading genre of television - reality TV - and wonder what makes it so riveting. Reality TV works because of its unscripted drama, because it's more authentic and more engaging than scripted network TV. It has been successful because it tackles hot-button issues - class, sex, race - that traditional TV rarely touches.

Good political debates should borrow the best from reality TV. The debates should provide an authentic picture of the next prime minister. They should provide unscripted, engaging dialogue on important topics. The challenge is that recent past formats have not allowed for this. With five leaders, we've been forced into a scripted, contrived format, and this format has failed to deliver authenticity. I think it's time to revisit the debate format. We need two debates in English and two in French.

In 2008, the debate format evolved after much wrangling into a five-way orchestrated arrangement. After each question by the moderator, each leader had 45 seconds to respond, followed by eight minutes of open debate. Forty-five seconds is not long enough to answer important policy questions, and each eight-minute period of open debate became a free-for-all, with party leaders shouting over each other. It effectively meant that four ganged up on the front-runner, the Prime Minister. The format may have been politically correct TV, but it didn't allow viewers to get a genuine understanding of the personalities and thinking of the participants.

We need to have both an English and French debate between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. There could be additional English and French debates that feature all relevant parties. But we still need a format that allows for authentic discovery, for leaders squaring off against each other. We want to see the key contenders under stress. This is the only way we'll really get an idea of their true personalities and beliefs, and the way they position themselves and their parties for us. When two true contenders go at each other, effective debate takes place.

Those of us who remember the debate between Brian Mulroney and John Turner will never forget how that moment of conflict shaped the election. The issue was political appointments. Mr. Turner said, "I had no option." Mr. Mulroney responded: "You had an option, sir, to say no and you chose to say yes." That brief exchange created an image of Mr. Turner's not having a mind of his own, not doing what he believed was right. His few words provided an inside look at who he was that destroyed his political future.

I believe the Canadian public wants debate that allows them into the true thinking of the main combatants. Through the interaction of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, we want to genuinely understand their character, their beliefs, their foresight and their insight. In many ways, the Conservatives and Liberals hold similar policies, so we need to understand the points of differentiation. Canadians should get the opportunity to see these leaders "in reality" before they vote on what sets them apart.

The role of the moderator is to let participants tell their stories, and let them challenge each other. The moderator is a facilitator, not a participant. The moderator's task is to enable debate that allows viewers to hear the authentic words of the leaders and, at the same time, provide opportunity for leaders to challenge each other's thinking. What makes a great debate is to have moderators who ask simple, direct questions, and allow the leaders to face off against each other in a free-style debate. It's these unscripted interactions that make for riveting discovery.

The public wants to see Stephen Harper face off against Michael Ignatieff. The public needs this opportunity because it's only through such a discussion that Canadians can discover the leaders' inner reality. In our democracy, we need to give the key contenders the opportunity to position themselves, to define what they want you to think of them and the party they represent. What Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff say in the debate is reality TV. The whole country will be watching.

Martin Goldfarb, principal at Goldfarb Intelligence Marketing, was the official Liberal Party of Canada pollster from 1972 to 1984.

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