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As we digest the latest in the long-running series of televisual farces known as election debates – sad trombones, anyone? – the thought inevitably arises: Why are we so terrible at organizing debates in this country?

Other countries seem capable of mounting televised debates that are halfway dignified, vaguely informative, marginally interesting – or at least not complete debacles. But in Canada, the country has been subjected to an endless parade of barely comprehensible shoutfests, in which a bevy of over-caffeinated candidates do their best to talk over each other in the brief time left to them by the multiple moderators and ever-shifting formats.

In the past, blame for these repeated fiascos could be attached to our enduring habit of treating televised debates, 60 years after Nixon-Kennedy, as if they had just been invented – as curious novelties rather than an essential, indeed central part of the modern election campaign.

Accordingly, in election after election the organization of debates, at least at the federal level, was left to last-minute haggling amongst the parties and the networks, whose individual self-interest was obvious and whose collective legacy was, every time, the lowest common denominator: as few debates as possible, minimizing the use of valuable airtime that could otherwise be devoted to American sitcoms or reality shows, while mimicking as near as possible their hysterical tone.

Blame for more recent federal debate failures, however, can be assigned with rather more precision: It is all the fault of the Leaders’ Debates Commission. The commission was handed responsibility for the debates in 2018, to prevent a recurrence of the chaos of the 2015 campaign, in which the Conservative leader boycotted the official debates in favour of a handful of hastily improvised sideshows. Since which time we have had the disaster of the 2019 debates, followed by the utter, toe-curling embarrassment of the 2021 debates.

To its credit, the Commission acknowledges, in its most recent after-action review, that not all was well with its handiwork. “There is widespread agreement,” it writes, “that the 2021 debates did not deliver as well as they should have on informing voters about parties’ policies.” It notes that the format was criticized as “cluttered, restrictive and not allowing enough time for leaders to express themselves or to engage in meaningful exchanges.” In addition, “the consensus was that there were too many journalists on stage.”

But while the Commission correctly identifies some of the patient’s symptoms, it fails to get at the disease: namely, that the debates remain the creature of the networks. No sooner had the Commission been created, with a mandate to take control over the process away from the major networks, than it effectively handed it back to them, via the production contracting process.

The results of this decision were on full display. Why were there so many moderators on the set, and why were they given such a prominent role? Because the networks wanted to showcase their stars. Why was the format so cluttered? Because network producers are convinced the public are hyperactive adolescents, incapable of sitting still without being distracted by a series of shiny objects.

Much of this might be mitigated by the simple expedient of holding more debates. When there is only one debate in each language, it encourages everyone – the media, as much as the participants – to treat the occasion as a kind of prizefight. Rather than think about what we might have learned about each of the leaders and their platforms, postdebate analysis is consumed with who “won” or “lost.” With so little time, everything has to be compressed: fewer subjects covered, in shorter sessions. Of course everyone’s going to talk over each other.

So why not have more of them – one a week, say? Other democracies do: The last U.K. election featured no fewer than five debates, the German election four, while U.S. presidential elections are surely in the double digits, counting the primaries. With more debates, not only would everyone have a chance to calm down, draw a breath, and maybe devote something more than a shouted slogan or two to each subject, but there would be room to experiment: with different formats or different participants (a debate between frontbenchers responsible for finance, say, or foreign affairs).

The public appears to want more debates, according to the Commission’s polling data. So why are we stuck with only two? The Commission is sympathetic to the idea of more debates, but says it “heard concern that this would require the agreement of the political parties and television networks. Invited leaders may not be willing or available, and networks may not commit to broadcasting multiple debates.”

Here’s a thought: Why should it be up to the networks? Why should they get to decide whether to broadcast the debates? Why shouldn’t it be required of them, as a condition of licence? For pity’s sake, we are talking about a few hours of airtime, total, every four years or so, in return for the fat profits ownership of a broadcast licence confers upon them every night of the week in between. The government imposes all sorts of other conditions on them, with far less justification. Why such deference, over democracy?

While we’re at it: Why even involve the networks in the production? Debates are relatively low-budget affairs, with little requirement for high-end production values – the less the better, frankly. Instead of leaving the debates to the networks to make their usual catastrophic mess of, why not produce the debates in-house?

Here again, the Commission seems open to the idea, but quickly drops it: Not only would this “necessitate the onboarding of significant talent and expertise,” but it might “risk [its] relationship with media organizations, who are key stakeholders and who indicated a willingness to work with the Commission in 2019 and 2021.” Quite apart from the circular logic – we have to work with the networks or they won’t work with us – this again presumes they should have some choice in the matter.

I hesitate to call for a larger role for the Commission, given how it has bungled its responsibilities to date, but there is nothing institutionally preventing it from organizing better debates – they could hardly be worse – especially in light of other countries’ experience. Organizing a decent minimum number of election debates ought to be seen less as a journalistic or philanthropic exercise (though it is always open to private groups to sponsor more) and more as a basic function of the state, like putting out polling booths or counting the votes. Elections Canada does a pretty good job at that. Why should a similar standard not be expected of the Debates Commission?

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