The debates mess (2) – Harper v Ignatieff?

Some propose going further than just excluding the Greens. Why, they say, are even the NDP or the Bloc invited? These aren’t, after all, realistic contenders for power. The next prime minister will be, let’s face it, either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff. Surely the debates should be a one-on-one affair.

The party leaders can debate who they like, of course, and the networks are free to broadcast them if they wish. If someone — even Maclean’s — would like to arrange an additional debate between just Harper and Ignatieff, I don’t suppose I have any objection. But the idea that this should take place instead of a debate featuring all of the leaders (all except one, of course), as Harper apparently suggested, and as some commentators would prefer, is just not on.

And it’s based on a flawed premise: that when we vote in elections, we vote, collectively, to choose a government, or indeed a prime minister — as if the ballot contained the names Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff et al. We don’t. We elect a Parliament. We vote in 308 ridings, and in every one of those ridings the choice is not between prime ministers or even parties but candidates.

We choose, what is more, between several candidates, not just two. But whichever one of them we elect, they do not disappear into smoke if they do not happen to come from the party that wins the most seat, or the party that finishes second. Indeed, we may vote for them in the full knowledge that they have no chance of forming a government, but wanting to be represented by them nevertheless. That is just as valid a choice, and the MPs from those parties are just as legitimate as the MPs from the two parties that traditionally contend for power.

So the premise that there is some special merit in a one-on-one debate between the leaders of the two parties which the best chance of winning suffers from a fatal flaw: that’s not actually what goes on in a Canadian election. I don’t mean that leaders don’t matter, or that they are irrelevant to voters’ decision to support this or that candidate in each riding. Of course not: indeed, they are probably the single most important factor, at least for uncommitted voters, in deciding which party they prefer, and party preference is overwhelmingly important in deciding the choice of local candidate.

So a debate between Harper and Ignatieff would be of compelling interest — to voters who were undecided between the two. That is, voters who had narrowed their choice down to one the two parties, Conservative or Liberal, but were not firmly committed to either. That’s about 10 per cent of the electorate. The rest — that is among the relatively small percentage that have not already made up their mind — are facing different choices: between the Conservatives and the NDP, or between the NDP and the Liberals, or between one of those parties and the Bloc, or the Greens. Or any combination of the five.

If helping voters to make up their minds is the objective, in other words – as opposed to providing an prize-fight atmosphere for the networks, and horse-race coverage for the media — then there is no particular reason to single out the Harper-Ignatieff combination.

And there is even less to hyper-ventilating about who challenged whom, and who backed down, and all the rest of the ridiculous macho posturing in which otherwise sensible people have indulged the past 24 hours.




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The debates mess (2) – Harper v Ignatieff?

  1. It is up to any organization (broadcast or not) and any candidate to decide on the participation in a debate. For example, a Jewish organization may choose not to invite a neo-Nazi sympathizing candidate. It is up to the other candidates to decide if the absence of one or more candidates is fair or not. Sometimes, major candidates do not participate in debates because they may find the host organization or format not fair. Note: Jewish organizations can host fair debates with or without objectionable candidates.

  2. Valid and good points and thanks for the post, which I agree with entirely up until the last sentence.
    I will quibble with the idea that Harper challenging Ignatieff to another debate and then promptly changing his story, suggesting his suggestion was never an honest one, but created to frame a separate narrative, speaks ill of his character. And surely you'd agree that the character of the leader of our country is important.

    • I agree with your point. It is was a clear example of Harper purposely trying to mislead people about events that had just happened and was rather crazy on Harper's part since they were documented in the press and elsewhere. It does speak to his character.

  3. ahem, quibble that it doesn't matter, not suggesting Coyne said something he didn't.

  4. I don't agree that the debate would only help those undecided between Conservative and Liberal with their vote. I think it would help anyone who was not decided about, but open to, either of these and that is a substantial number of voters. Someone who might vote Liberal or NDP, or someone deciding between Conservative and Green, could be swayed one way or the other depending on what they learned from a Harper-Ignatieff debate.

    I would like to see such a debate, but, as you argue, not replacing the all-party debate, which should include Elizabeth May too, in my opinion.

    • I agree with this. It's not only people caught between Ignatieff and Harper that would be interested in this debate. I expect that many otherwise NDP or Green inclined (and even some Conservative) voters might flip over to Ignatieff if he made a good showing. Otherwise, I'm in full agreement with Andrew's article.

  5. I can't figure out why Harper would have even proposed a 1-on-1 debate – they're right in Ignatieff's wheelhouse, he's kind of spent a lifetime debating both formally and informally. If I was part of the CPC braintrust I'd try to minimize the times an election plays to Ignatieff's strengths.

  6. So the premise that there is some special merit in a one-on-one debate between the leaders of the two parties which the best chance of winning suffers from a fatal flaw: that's not actually what goes on in a Canadian election" Interesting. We clearly hold different views in that regard.

    So, then why could the consortium not have done some thinking outside the box?

    It is a fair enough opinion that indeed all leaders must be able to present themselves in debate form. And such could be presented even if Ignatieff and Harper were to have their one-on-one debates instead of being asked to participate in four.

    Why not have the three other party leaders, May, Layton and Duceppe, dish it out in separate debates amongst the three of them?

    They could still show the voter what they stand for and how they would like to see this country move forward, and since the BQ and NDP and Greens will not be the parties out of which a PM will emerge, why even bother pretending that they need to show such capabilities?

    It would be far more interesting to see how the NDP policies differ from the Greens and it would be extremely interesting to find out how Mr.Layton differs from the BQ's point of view, since it would be of utmost importance for Canadians to know that when a coalition would be formed (Jack is not against it, and has openly said so) how exactly Mr.Layton would consider the BQ point of view when coming to form federal policies with the inclusion of the BQ's voice in the event of a coalition.

    • It's late, and I'm tired. Which is why I'm going to give you one last go-round.

      1. Do you not think it would also be interesting to see how NDP policies differ from Liberal ones, or where Greens would be supportive of Harper's position? In other words, have an all-candidates debate AND a Harper-Ignatieff debate. Yes, I know that means four debates with the repeat in the other language, but as has already been pointed out–that's just dumb from every angle.
      2. But then again, what concrete reasons do you have to offer as to why four debates are excessive, unnecessary, and inefficient use of time? Why not have four?

      • I am getting tired too, but never too tired to point you in directions of a post I posted on Andrew's # 3 of the debate debacle, which deals mostly with your #1 question.

        As to #2 question: I have nothing against watching four debates. But I entirely respect any of the party leader's choice not to want to participate in four debates in such a hectic campaign schedule. I respect the leader who chooses to want to do four, and I respect the leader who would prefer to do two debates.

        As to "excessive, unnecessary, and inefficient use of time" – those were never my words but yours. I didn't need them words to explain my offered reasons.

        • Full points for sticking with reality, or logical flow or something, Francien! Good on you, and I'm glad I tried again.

          I'll read your post answering #1 when I can, and while I think #2 is a bit of a cop-out, I can also see it as an honest opinion. (Including four debates could take some of the 'hect' out of the hectic campaign schedule, while reaching more voters, but that's more of an argument to Harper than you.)

          • Yes, Jenn, full points self awarded for trying again, but you're not there yet.

            You see, trying to paint your assessment of "cop-out' being an honest opinion is right in that it is still your opinion. It may very well be that you honestly think that debates could take some of the 'hect' out of the hectic campaign schedule, but it does not have to be experienced so by everyone. Furthermore, Harper has never indicated that the debates would reach more voters, or not. And whether your argument is directed to Harper or to me is besides the point. The reach toward voters is still just an opinion. And everyone, including Harper, has the right to his or her own opinions, expressed or not. Don't confuse things by thinking that because you may think that the debates will reach more voters, does not mean Harper or anyone else therefore must hold the same opinion. Do you have proof that the debates reach more voters than not?

            Oh, and one small note regarding last election debates: coming out of the debates, most in the media declared Ms.May a competent debater. Yet, when Paikin suggested all leaders say something nice to the leader sitting next to them, it was only Ms.May who could not muster the strenght to say something nice about Harper. And was such ever reported in the 'after' debates? Or does playing it nice not count for Ms.May when some of the media members rate her overal performance? You may not believe me, but I'm sure you could find the clip if the networks would still have it available somewhere.

          • I watched the debate, and I remember that very well. You're right, it was a definite misstep on Lizzie May's part. But I personally still scored her the winner, overall, I think. Not that she won my vote because there is a lot more than the performance at a debate to take into consideration.

            And Francien, while I agree that my opinion is only my opinion, it is also the only opinion that counts, to me.

          • Well, there you go!

            :)

  7. "And it's based on a flawed premise: that when we vote in elections, we vote, collectively, to choose a government, or indeed a prime minister — as if the ballot contained the names Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff et al." Perhaps the harper Government TM, if reelected could fix this by changing their party name to the Harper Conservative Party or some such, then his glorious name would be on all ballots – except Andre Arthur's riding.

  8. "A party exists to form a government. It is a political association of people whose interests and ideas and confidence in each other make it possible that they should be able to work together to support coherent measures, a ministry, and, most important, a budget. No party has any value in politics unless it is a potential government. Any political association can call itself a party. If it promotes only one issue or interest, or if it so positions itself that it can never hope to form a government, It cannot serve the purpose for which parties exist and does not deserve the name." cont'd

    • "A so-called party that has no hope of forming a government is necessarily a fraud and undemocratic. It cannot honestly promise to do anything because it will never, by itself, be able to do anything. It offers what it cannot deliver. Its goals can only be achieved with the help of others who share its goals and are therefore equally worthy of the votes of its supporters, or others who are prepared to support something they do not believe in for the sake of power, making a corrupt bargain and allowing a minority to lever a balance of power in a fragmented Parliamentto get what it wants against the will of the majority." cont'd

      • "Once the House of Commons in effect decided who would be the government, the most important thing about a candidate seeking to be a member became, for most voters, whom he would support in government. By choosing Whig or Tory, the voter could effectively have a say in who would govern. … Elections are a means for letting the voters decide"

        John Pepall, Against Reform

        I'd quote the whole book if I could.

  9. .
    Ignatieff's a tactical moron. Harper has handed him the opportunity, and he doesn't know what to do with it. Reading Tolstoy, instead of Karpov.

    He should have immediately challenged Layton one-on-one on youTube for a potential viral play, and let Harper freeze in the dark.
    .

  10. Good points. We are electing a parliament, and many Canadians want a Green or NDP member. They deserve to see the leaders of those parties in action.

    I'm a bit surprised at Harper's tone in this campaign, actually. If he wants a majority he needs to convince some people who voted against him in the last election to switch sides. Can he really do that by yelling at them at telling them they supported an evil coalition? Wouldn't it be better to throw the sweater back on and invite everyone under the cozy blue tent?

  11. Andrew says:

    So a debate between Harper and Ignatieff would be of compelling interest — to voters who were undecided between the two. That is, voters who had narrowed their choice down to one the two parties, Conservative or Liberal, but were not firmly committed to either. That's about 10 per cent of the electorate.

    If helping voters to make up their minds is the objective, in other words – as opposed to providing an prize-fight atmosphere for the networks, and horse-race coverage for the media — then there is no particular reason to single out the Harper-Ignatieff combination.

    • Not well argued Andrew, here's why:

      (1) 10% is more than enough to swing an election
      (2) Hearing Harper & Ignatieff debate would be an excellent way to help undecided voters, even ones who aren't choosing between those two candidates. Eg, if Igantieff performed well vs. Harper, might convince and NDP/Liberal fence-sitter to vote Liberal.
      (3) This kind of debate could have an impact on voter turnout (eg, encouraging or discouraging people to "stay" home.
      (4) Even 'decided' voters change their minds.

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