There’s no disputing the importance of televised leaders debates to elections. Indeed, they are central, often marking the start of the “real” campaign – the point when the public starts paying attention. Yet their potential remains largely unrealized. With an election looming, possibly as soon as this spring, what say we try one more time to get them right?
In principle, debates offer voters a unique window on the leaders: sustained, focused, and unfiltered, under pressure and in real time. In practice, they often degenerate into shouty, cross-talking panderfests that probably do more harm than good.
Part of the reason for this, historically, was the tendency to leave their organization to last-minute negotiations among the parties and the networks. With every seat at the negotiating table attending to its own interest, the public interest tended to get overlooked.
The Liberals promised to change this in 2015, vowing to set up “an independent commission to organize leaders’ debates” in time for the next election. Alas, no sooner had the Grits established the federal Leaders’ Debates Commission than they compromised it, appointing former governor-general David Johnston as commissioner without consulting the opposition, and dictating two of the most important rules – how many debates would be held, and who could participate – in advance.
The commission, for its part, promptly handed control of the debates back to the networks, with the results we saw (at least in the English-language debate) last time. The networks used the events to showcase their stars. The leaders talked over each other. And that was that. Everyone quickly went back to the same unappetizing mix of photo ops and attack ads and horserace coverage that makes up most modern campaigns.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Fortunately, the commission seems to have concluded the same. In its post-election report last June, it recommended vesting control of the debates in a commission with truly independent authority. Reappointed in November, Mr. Johnston now has the opportunity to make fundamental changes to how the debates are run. He should take it.
Specifically, he should:
Have more of them. Why is there so much prize-fight hysteria surrounding the debates? Because the leaders get only one shot at it in each language. The whole campaign comes down to those two hours – not enough time to do much of anything except bark out the usual talking points, plus a couple of memorized attack lines, in hopes of producing a clip for the evening news or a meme for social media.
Suppose instead we had half a dozen or more – a debate a week – making the debates not just an important stop on the campaign trail, but the very spine along which it was conducted. (Given the pandemic, that may be the only safe way to campaign.) With more time for each question, the leaders might be able to develop a thought or two; with the chance to recover from a bad performance in a subsequent debate, they might be a little more relaxed, a little less programmed.
More debates would also leave room to experiment with different formats. Rather than putting all the emphasis on the leaders, for example, perhaps there could be debates between the front-benchers responsible for finance, or foreign affairs, or justice. More debates could even help solve the riddle of who should be eligible to participate. Maybe in the first couple, all of the parties are represented. As the campaign wears on, you set a threshold: 5 per cent in the polls, rising to 10.
Make them bilingual. Elections involve the whole nation. Leaders should speak to the whole nation. Why, then, do we segregate the debates by language? There’s no necessity for it. Debates could be divided into hour or half-hour sessions in each official language. Or just let the leaders have at it, in whatever tongue they choose. That’s what simultaneous translation is for.
Shut down the crosstalk. Give the moderator the power to cut the microphone of any leader who interrupts or talks over another. The whole country will thank you.
Leave the networks out of it. Never mind letting them set the rules. There’s no reason even to involve them, except in one respect: They should be required, as a condition of licence, to broadcast them. A few hours of free air time every four years isn’t going to bankrupt them.
These are just the official debates, of course. There’s no reason the leaders could not also take part in other, privately sponsored debates. Neither could they be compelled to participate in the official ones – although with the huge audiences they could potentially command, the point seems moot. Provided they were well executed, with rules that were seen as fair to all, they would become the sorts of events a leader could ill afford to miss. It’s all up to Mr. Johnston.
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