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opinion

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd.

The Conservative party's decision to end traditionally formatted political debate is a welcome one. And it's strategically brilliant to boot.

Social media has brought many changes to many people. Certainly one of them is that even live performances tend to feel cumbersome and superfluous.

In an era in which everything is sliced, diced and parsed for its highlights within seconds of actually happening, live events now seem like an unnecessary evil. Why endure the whole thing when you can catch a recap of the highlights by waiting a short period of time?

That's why the federal Conservatives' strategy of effectively shutting down the tightly controlled, often-stultifying format of the election debates traditionally run by the major networks – CTV, CBC and Shaw Media, which owns Global – is so strategically clever.

For too long now, election debates have been run by a moderator juggling a series of arcane rules that often seemed designed to ensure any real exchanges ended before they got interesting. Monologues were the order of the day, interspersed with bouts of partisan heckling by opponents desperate to score points with viewers.

Now, that game is changing thanks to the Tory's demand that debates be precisely that. And in doing so, they have also found a way to exploit the format to its greatest advantage and spicing up the drudgery of a lengthy, live event.

The new Tory-endorsed debate format – with one each in both official languages, and the possibility of up to three more – will feature spontaneous interchanges and end the time-controlled, subject-specific discussions that have prevailed. This overhaul gives much more control to the incumbent. Stephen Harper is the most experienced of the leaders in a live debate format so he can sit back, choose his words carefully and watch his rivals shout and grimace while he appears as the controlled elder statesmen.

Of course, the less the Prime Minister says, the less he gets in trouble.

By doing this, the Prime Minister's Office is sending a clear signal to legacy media platforms that their old way of doing debates is done. By proactively taking that initiative, it looks like Team Harper is attuned to the times – and voter interests.

They are right: Conventional media no longer controls the delivery of information. People now have the power to pick and choose what they watch, when they watch it, which parts they watch and where they watch it thanks to an ever growing expanse of the media universe.

The Conservatives clearly understand new media. Soon, we'll find out if the same is true of other parties and their leaders. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau may win marks for being appealing. But can he debate? The NDP's Thomas Mulcair can debate. But can he be appealing?

The PMO has made a shrewd political move: At first glance it appears to be advocating something less formal and more inclusive. But the reality is the new format allows Mr. Harper to deliver his message live, but with much greater control.

The consortium would argue that the current structure allows for higher overall viewership. Sure enough, pollsters estimate close to four-million Canadians watched the last federal election debate. That was an increase of more than 20 per cent from the 2008 debate.

While the impact of television is diminishing, however, it remains true that campaigns matter. A lot. Mr. Harper is offering to make live debates much more dramatic and interesting. No matter their preference, voters should welcome the opportunity to be engaged by the participants themselves, rather than controlled by the outmoded rules and referees of the past.