Debates for voters, not politicos and TV brass
What if they gave a debate and the prime minister didn’t come? We’re about to find out. On Oct. 7, national television networks will broadcast a leadership debate in French. On Oct. 8, they will do the same in English. That’s about a week and a half ahead of the Oct. 19 fixed election date. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not participate. Why?
It depends on whom you ask and what you read, but the bottom line appears to be that this is a urination match between the Conservatives and the major TV networks, known as the consortium when they’re organizing these joint TV debates. Back in May, campaign spokesperson Kory Teneycke made it clear it was about the “sense of entitlement” the networks felt as historical overseers of the debates. He said the Conservatives would entertain all sorts of debate invitations, but not from the networks.
Later responses from the Conservatives have waffled somewhat, with them now claiming it’s about the lack of suitable dates and too many invitations. But the fact is Harper’s chair on the debate stage – literally and/ or figuratively – will be empty.
The Conservatives aren’t the only ones critical of the traditional debate format. Many have credibly observed the debates tend to be stale, repetitive and predictable. The structure typically allows debaters to fall back on tried and true attacks and responses that are mostly sound and fury lacking in substance. So the Conservatives are not off base with their criticism or desire to try some new debates with new partners. They will do that partnering with Maclean’s magazine and French broadcaster TVA, among others.
Until their latest hard refusal to take part in the network debates, we were on the side of the Conservatives on this matter. What’s the harm in trying something new? But they have made a major strategic error by still boycotting the debates while the other leaders – Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair and Green leader Elizabeth May – have agreed to take part.
Both the debate organizers and the Conservatives seem to have forgotten one thing: The debates are not for them, they’re for Canadians. By refusing to bend even a little and consider improvements, the consortium is acting high- handed and like, well, a cartel. But the Conservatives are making the biggest mistake. Between the English and French debates in 2011, 14 million viewers watched the leaders face off. The audience might be somewhat smaller this time, but it’s still huge and influential. By refusing now to reconsider, the Conservatives appear rigid and arrogant – characteristics, unfortunately, they are no strangers to.
For strategic reasons, and because it’s not right to deprive Canadians of a full- fledged debate with the incumbent in attendance, the Conservatives need to change tack and take part in the debates.