Sears: Our election debates have become embarrassing failures. How did we sink so low?

Couldn’t agree more:

The consensus about the English debate appears to be that Justin Trudeau’s snarling performance lost it for him, that Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh landed a few effective blows, that Annamie Paul was the winner but it doesn’t matter, and that Yves-François Blanchet won the gold medal for angry petulance.

But the real losers were Canadians, and the folks that should have been removed from the debate stage were the debate organizers themselves. Their “debates” more resembled a rigidly staged game show, with a little “Survivor” added in the form of nasty loaded questions, designed to throw you out of the game.

The blame for the embarrassing debate failures this year is widely shared. The networks push their journalists to become stars of the show, and several played almost partisan and celebrity-seeking roles. The moderator had great difficulty with her role, displaying the exasperation of a newbie teacher attempting to corral a careening group of sugar-high kids.

The set designers should be retired. Flashy, plastic and ugly, the set looked like it was designed to play a starring rather than a supporting role.

How did we sink so low? Well, Canadian political debates have been on a long, slow decline. The newly minted Leaders’ Debates Commission was created to address previous criticisms. It will no doubt give itself a firm pat on the back in its next report, pointing to what will no doubt be impressive viewing numbers. A more sober conclusion would be that it is absurd to think that little more than an hour of direct exchange between five leaders in each language for an entire election campaign is an adequate fulfilment of their mandate.

The commission said they had considered two debates in each language, but were concerned that might “dilute” the viewership. What specious nonsense. Every insider knows why they folded on that essential question: the networks are still really in charge, and they do not want to give up the airtime.

It is indeed ironic that some of the most iconic debates of decades past were moderated with great professionalism by the commission chair David Johnston. He and the other commissioners might want to have a viewing of those past debates together, and then consider whether the flashy game shows they have created are an improvement.

So, where to begin again? First, some basic principles.

Debates are ideally between two contestants, maximum three. Debates are not 45-second sound bites; nuanced messaging requires time, at least 90 seconds, with two minutes reserved for opening and closing remarks. Journalists should not be encouraged to compete with the leaders for airtime, nor should they number more than two. Citizens’ questions are a condescending distraction by the debate organizers. They pretend to be a “vox pop” compliment to Canadians. They aren’t. And two debates in each language is a minimum.

If the networks are not happy with those parameters, show them the door. There are many universities and citizens’ organizations perfectly capable of staging serious, professional political debates. Parliament should grant a new commission an annual budget to fund the debates themselves, granting those groups asked to host sufficient funds to produce an intelligent, informative program.

The Leaders’ Debates Commission is part of the problem. Some argued at its creation that it was Liberal-tainted. If that were true, then the Liberal Party of Canada must be fuming at this year’s series of gong shows. Their leader got hammered. No, the problem is not partisan bias — it is professional knowledge. Retired MPs and professors are excellent counsellors on many files, but television production is not among them.

As a reset, let’s lay out the criteria for membership clearly, and have professional recruitment conducted by an outside consultant, the way we do most major public appointments today. Then let’s have a parliamentary committee approve a granular set of expectations and goals, as a mandate letter to the new commission.

It is deeply ironic that in an election unique in its limitations on the ability of parties and candidates to reach out to meet voters — and the ability of voters to come to hear a leader in person — that one of the few tools left to help Canadians come to a voting decision was such a disaster.

Let’s start over one more time, and try to figure out how best to avoid another campaign of flops.

Source: Our election debates have become embarrassing failures. How did we sink so low?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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