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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