The reason to have a leaders’ debate – or, oh to dream, more than one debate – is not to provide a platform for the host. It’s not about giving the networks airtime to promote their anchors. It’s not about providing five “average person” lottery winners a chance to “have their say.” It’s not one more opportunity to tick racial and gender boxes for all of the above. And it isn’t a place for journalists to interrogate politicians – that’s a press conference, something each of the leaders does, regularly.
The point of a leaders’ debate is for the leaders to debate. That’s it. That’s all. That’s everything.
A debate means giving our aspiring heads of government, the people asking for a democratic mandate, the time to lay out their positions, to criticize each other’s positions, and to rebut, on a variety of topics. Give them time, give them space and let them go. That’s a debate.
Again: That’s it, that’s all, that’s everything.
And a debate is what all five people at the front of the stage on Thursday night in Gatineau were ready to get into. They know their positions and their platforms, and they know those of their adversaries. Let them have it, and see what we the voters of Canada can learn.
Yet Thursday night’s debate – this election’s only one in English – was designed to prevent debate from breaking out. Why? Beats us. Journalists read questions that were longer than the time given to the leaders’ answers, and leaders who wanted to debate with one another were quickly shut down by the moderator.
The City of Toronto was once legendary for street signs reading “No ball playing allowed.” This was the political equivalent. No debating, please.
Since the leaders were given so little time, and were largely prevented from interacting with one another in a format longer than a sound bite, they were reduced to lobbing rehearsed one-liners. It made TikTok look like Plato’s Symposium.
Canadians deserve better. Our parliamentary democracy, bequeathed to us by the hard fights of our history, and which people around the world dream of living under, deserves better. And yes, our political leaders deserve better.
The official consortium cooked up a format designed to foster cynicism about politics and politicians, making a group of five leaders – all smart, educated, experienced and in command of their briefs – look dumb and empty, like cardboard cut-outs of who they actually are.
It made our democracy look profoundly shallow and unserious, like a caricature from Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.
The big loser in this no-debate debate was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Down in the polls, and facing the possibility of a reduced minority, or worse, he was itching to contrast his platform with that of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. He got shot down nearly every time – not by better arguments, but by the clock, the format or the moderator.
He was like a man on trial for his political life, in a courtroom where he was cut off every time he tried to speak in his defence.
The irony is that Mr. Trudeau is the one who, as prime minister, scrapped the free-for-all of 2015, when there were multiple unofficial debates. He benefitted from that state of affairs, as his rivals were repeatedly forced to face a third-party Liberal opponent who grew his support in part through his debate performances. But Mr. Trudeau replaced the free-for-all with a quasi-governmental official anti-debate debates bureaucracy.
Can the next Parliament please fix this state of affairs? Canadians deserve more debates, longer debates and far better debates – debates that are actual debates.
French-language voters were entitled to two debates, one official and one unofficial, plus a “face-à-face” on Radio-Canada, where three journalists thoughtfully questioned each of the leaders one after the other, over more than two hours.
For the sake of our democracy, we should be letting a thousand flowers – or at least a half-dozen debates – bloom each election season.
As for Thursday night’s fiasco, there was no sense that the producers understood that there was anything special about the stage or the moment. There was no wonder or reverence for the process or its product, the twin marvels of representative democracy and responsible government. It might as well have been another episode of The Great Canadian Baking Show.
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