The debates mess (3) – The whole thing

Andrew Coyne on the urgent necessity of reforming leaders debates


What both the preceding posts point to is the urgent necessity of reforming how we do the debates. We need to take the process out of the hands of the networks, and the parties, with their self-evident biases. And we need to set the rules for elections in general, rather than negotiating them ad hoc, each time, in the middle of a campaign.

The problem now is that everyone involved knows where their self-interest lies. This doesn’t just affect decisions of who gets in. It permeates every line of the rules. The party that is ahead in the polls, for example, wants to have as few debates as it can get away with: ideally, none. The party that’s behind wants to have six. So they saw it off at two: one in each official language.

Again, I have my preferences, you have yours. For me, I’d like there to be several debates, perhaps one a week for the course of the campaign. That would take away some of the prize-fight nonsense: we would be less obsessed with who “won” or “lost” the debate, as if that were an indication of anything, and more concerned with what we learned about each leader and their positions on the issues, which surely ought to be the point. The leaders, in turn, would be less wired and over-rehearsed if they knew they could recover from a bad performance in subsequent debates.

We should also abolish this odious business of having separate debates in each language. The end result is not only to halve the audience for each debate — an election, of all times, ought to be a time when the whole country comes together — but the French debate becomes, inevitably, a debate for and about Quebec, with shameless pandering to match.

If there were no other way to accommodate the two official language groups, that would be one thing. But it’s not. We needn’t have all the leaders speaking both languages all the time. We could divide up each debate into half-hour or hour-long segments, alternating English and French between them. We’re quite used to simultaneous translation in this country. So why on earth do we put up with this linguistic segregation?

Holding more debates, each of them bilingual, would open the way for other innovations. Perhaps some of the debates could be devoted to particular subjects. Perhaps instead of just the leaders, they could be between the critics for a given portfolio. Perhaps we could experiment with different formats. And so on.

Best of all, more debates would give the media something to talk about, besides gaffes, and photo-ops, and broken-down bus metaphors. I can’t see us changing otherwise.

Anyway. Whatever format we choose, whatever rules we set, they should be set outside the confines of any one election campaign. We have to stop pretending that televised debates are some sort of novelty. They’ve been with us for 50 years, and are now as integral to any election campaign as lawn signs and all-candidates meetings. It’s time they were incorporated into the election laws.

To be sure, the parties would have their say: there’s no way of setting rules that could not involve them. But if no party knew where it stood in the polls — if the rules were set behind a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” — then it should be possible to agreed on rules that were fair to all, and accepted as such.

Otherwise we are condemned to repeat the same travesty, election after election after election.


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The debates mess (3) – The whole thing

  1. as always, wisdom from the mount. Well done.

    • Hear Hear. Time to end this nonsense over who gets in or not to a debate and definitely, to have more than one debate. What is an election about, if not to hear from the leaders from each party on their proposals.

  2. The Charter contains the right to freedom of expression, particularly political expression. Thus, no matter how noble Andrew's sentiment may be, there can never be rules that obligate a political party or individual to participate in a debate.

    • I don't see Andrew suggesting that participation in codified debates would be mandatory.

      • That being said, it sounds suspiciously like a call for…DUM DUM DUM!!!!….regulation!

  3. If the HofC Question Period actually involved debate instead of stonewalling and mud slinging, the importance of these particular debates would be diminished.

    Frankly, I think they are less and less relevant, and accomodating all comers adds to the problems.

    Personally, I'd like to see PM vs Leader of the Opposition one-on–one to hold each other accountable for past deeds and future decisions.

    • See, that's the problem. You have your legitimate preferences, which differ from myriad other equally valid views on format, participants, etc.

      Let's not leave it to the players to squabble over the rules of the game. They each have vested interests in massaging the the rules to their own advantage, best interests of the electorate be damned.

  4. Fixing debates in election law would, for consistency, presumably use the same bar as for official party status in the House – thus excluding the Greens and all the other crazies once again. Sounds fine to me.

    • That's quite the presumption.

  5. I would love to see weekly debates during our federal elections.

    • Weekly debates while Parliament is in session would also be cool.

      • Whoops….DBM below got 'here' first.

  6. Bravo! Well done Andrew Coyne.

    The french and english not separate is a great suggestion. (hope it will be accepted)

    We need to see a one-on-one debate, but it must be up to the individual leaders as to how many debates they feel they can participate in during a hectice schedule. And no leader should be faulted for not wanting to do a weekly debate. Each to their own preference, I would suggest.

    During any of the debates, the questions must also include what the role of the BQ would be in case coaltion agreements are formed with the separatist/provincial party. Such important question can no longer be avoided by the media or the political leader. Canadian debates must include being clear about this country.

    • “During any of the debates, the questions must also include what the role of the BQ would be in case coaltion agreements are formed with the separatist/provincial party. Such important question can no longer be avoided by the media or the political leader. Canadian debates must include being clear about this country.”

      The best way to solve this whole Bloc/coalition thing is to ban the Bloc Party because they aren’t a Federal party representing Canadians across the whole Country.

      I would be all for that solution as they are Traitors to the Country anyway. That goes for western separatists too. If you don’t like it…Leave, Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

      • Western separatist, if there were any to speak of, would not participate in federal elections. Westerners would know the difference between the real thing and the fake stuff.

  7. I agree that having a bilingual debate is the right way to go, but you just know a ton of people will complain about it.

  8. Don't have a problem with this concept at all. When this 'Should the Green Party be in the debate?' business came up again, my first thought was, 'Don't we have this sorted out already?' I don't have strong feelings whether they're in or they're out, but we shouldn't have to waste time on the question every friggin' election. Some ground rules on debates would be nice.

    That said, who will develop them? Elections Canada? Parliament? The Supreme Court? Oprah? A grand council of all the above?

  9. I'd like a debate every week (why only in elections, for that matter?) but I'm not sure it would engage the country.

  10. I'm sure whatever rules arrived at would be excellent at determining the current situation and those of most recent memory, and would revisiting the next time something unique came up.

    (OMG! Coyne has me arguing AGAINST regulation on a theoretical basis! The evil mastermind!)

    • Chess, my checkers-playing friend. The game is chess.

  11. I'm not even sure what the point of the debates is. They seem to revolve around who 'wins.' But that just shows who is the best debater, not who would be the best Prime Minister. I've been in debate clubs, and I can tell you the best debaters are not the people I would want running the country.

  12. I find little with which to disagree in Coyne's analysis. Perhaps Elections Canada could mandate a small commission comprised of credible, independent authorities in democratic election process (about which, for some reason, I thought Canada already had an international reputation for expertise). Such as commission could lay out a set of ground rules for debates in future elections and arbitrate disputes that arise around the application of those rules.

    Let's get on with it. Elections are starting to induce a kind of of deja vu nausea when these issues surface repeatedly.

  13. Andrew says: "The problem now is that everyone involved knows where their self-interest lies." It is so!

    So why not do it like this, because there would still be time to decide for these upcoming debates:

    No separation of french and english debates

    1. One debate between all five participants

    2. One debate between Harper and Ignatieff

    3. One debate between Layton, Duceppe and May

    That way, each leader has to debate in two debates only; the voter would not be too overwhelmed with trying to listen to all leaders and all issues in every debate; and the voter would see the difference between two front runner's leadership styles and their capabilities to be PM; the distinction between the Tories and the Libs could be highlighted; and the distinction between the other three parties could be highlighted.

    A win-win for the leaders and the audience.

    • Okay, I agree actually completely with this plan. Who'da thunk it?

      • Huge problem with this. How do you decide who is the front runners? I hope you don't plan to use polls to decide. I also hope you don't want to use performance in the last election to dictate the front runner for the next. Iggy wasn't even in the country for the last election and yet fverhoeven seems to place him as one of the two front runners. Interesting idea that needs a lot more thought.

        • Why must reason be thrown at the wayside once again? Why are you suggesting that the two front leaders are not easily identified? Why try and scuttle something, once again, because we must debate fallacies over and over again, never being able to come to something of substance and relevance.

          This idea does not need a lot more thought. This idea needs to be taken seriously. Canadians should not allow themselves to be held back by being unable to step over minor differences. Yes, it could be possible, technically speaking, that the NDP or the Greens will come out of this election as the front runners. And if such were to be the results after the debates, then we will collectively apologize to Mr.Layton and Ms.May for having underestimated them both – after the debates.

          • And besides, the NDP and the Greens have a lot more in common with each other than do the Liberals and the Greens. It is therefore much more relevant to see Layton debate May, than see Ignatieff debate May instead of him debating Harper.

          • Stop the two dollar per vote subsidy, and maybe some of the so called parties will be gone, leaving the field a lot less cluttered.

        • Cerainly a compelling reason not to cancel the all-candidates debate, at any rate.

      • Jenn, thank you. For me it's not a matter of who agrees with me or not. For me, posting ideas here is all in order to have some reasonable debate going forward. And 'reasonable' is the key word. Emotions being guided by reason is always the way to go.

        And therefore, it may be nice that you and I have come to agree on something like the proposal set out above, but what is of importance is that others will start thinking in different directions also: that yes, there are other possibilities and those possibilities should be seriously considered. The idea is not to pitch one leader's preference over another, but the idea is to find a middle ground so that all parties can be accomodated as by preference. It is plainly unfair on any one's part to say that only Harper should adjust if there are to be one-on-one debates. The media consortium has heard from all party leaders before making up the format, and are hearing from the party leaders when they speak up in public now. Will new suggestions be looked at? That depends on how the media consortium deals with issues like this; issues of importance to all Canadians and important to all party leaders running in this campaign.

        That is what I think.

  14. All parties have already agreed to participate in the Broadcast Consortium's debate between the party leaders. It was the consortium that nixed May's participation.

    Harper then publicly challenged Ignatieff to a one-on-one debate. Ignatieff accepted unconditionally. His team later said that they also still want to participate in the multi-candidate debate. No contradiction there.

    Then, Harper backed down from the one-on-one debate he himself called for — after Iggy accepted. His team have concocted an excuse that Harper only wants one debate, and since Iggy also remains committed to the consortium's debate, it is Iggy who backed down. This is laughable — and everyone sees it for what it is: pure BS.

    Worse is that the Conservatives actually use the fact that Harper is only willing to debate other leaders ONE TIME during the entire campaign as a defense.

    Next question to Harper from the press should be: You're running for the top job in government. Why are you only willing to participate in one debate during the entire multi-week campaign?

    • You are wrong. This is what Harper has said (and although you and Ignatieff may not like what Harper has said, he has still said just that):

      “We said this was the networks' decision. We are open to all kinds of options. Our first preference was a direct debate with the leader of the coalition,” Mr. Harper said, highlighting a message he has been hammering since the election campaign kicked off.
      “Mr. Ignatieff insisted that his first preference was to have his coalition partners there at the debate,” he added. “So that's the format that was proposed and we have accepted it.
      “We're not interested in multiple debates. . . . We're going to spend the rest of our time campaigning across the country.”

      It's the consortium which did not have the guts to call for a better shot. We should complain to the media, for they have known this debate thingy was coming up. Why could they not come up with something meaningful? Why does Harper have to adjust, once again, to what the media consortium dictates as the "right' thing to do? Why is the consortium's opinion more valid than Harper's??

      • Go back to your thinking earlier. It was much more lucid and reasonable. You can't say, for example "You are wrong" and then repeat Harper's words which say pretty much exactly what Amateur Hour paraphrased them to say.

        • Jenn, false reporting of facts, as Amateur Hour has managed to do in his post, only debase the further discussions. If you are willing to read what Harper had said for himself than you would come to understand his position as outlined by him. There is no use in discussing ongoing interpretations of Harper's remarks; any ongoing debate on the issue shoulc be in response to what Harper has said himself. And if you go over the footage, you will hear exactly what Harper had to say for himself. Bring Harper's words into the discussion, not try to go forward on interpretations of Harper's words. Relying on interpretations does not add to any debate, reasonably speaking.

  15. I think it has become painfully obvious that the media (Milewski, Fife etc) are not asking questions in a search for answers for Canadians but are asking potentially embarrassing questions and are also being argumentative. We recall how the rat Milewski started the first press conference with the first question. I suspect Canadians are not stupid enough not to see and conclude that most in the media are partisan Liberals, and acting as attack dogs – they are trying for the “Gotcha” moment rather than the search for the truth.
    CBC and CTV still refuse to play the video of 2004 which would definitively show that Duceppe is lying – they don't get a free pass on that chicanery.

    • Wow, Fife is a Liberal now? I thought he was on the direct route to the Senate!

      • Jenn, would you be in favour of airing the 2004 video in which Duceppe and Layton and Harper clearly state that neither one of them are signing any form of coalition? Or would you prefer the media not use that video?

        And also, would you like for the media to air the video of the 2008 coalition signing with Duceppe talking about a "Permanent Mechanism for Consultation" ? And furthermore, would you like the media to ask Duceppe some questions in regards to that particular mechanism proposed??? Canada would like to know, don't you think?

        In case you want to re-watch what really happened in 2008, and in case the msm would prefer you not watch it again, here is the link, in case you do want to watch it again, to make sure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8qlWvX8sbk&fe… Duceppe at his own words!!!

  16. :The female gender often have a whole different approach to issues so I would like to be informed on Elizabeth May’s . I want TV debates funded by taxpayer dollars , not some Media outlet who appears to have only

    4 chairs . I want a respected and learned mediator who will ask tough questions in a venue like a University, and where the audience participates by asking questions – for example – Wouldn’t we win more hearts and minds if we invested in Education in Afghanistan versus training the Afghan Army ? Why does Canada give unconditional support to Israel considering their expansion of settlements into Gaza?

    We are a Democracy not an Autocracy (“au·toc·ra·cy : unlimited authority, power, or influence of one person in any group. ) . At least not yet.

  17. Breaking News – Layton will be Leader of Coalition not Iggy

    Now it turns out Ignatieff is out on his ear in a two leader debate. We learned today that if there is a coalition on the left, people want Jack Layton to be the leader by a long shot ( 59% to 27%), and not Count Iggy . So if consortium of broadcasters arrange the two leader debate, it will be Layton versus Harper – what a turn of events – but that is democracy that Ignatieff believes in and defends.

    OTTAWA — If Canadians find themselves being governed by a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition following the May election, they want to see the NDP's Jack Layton become prime minister, results of an exclusive poll for Postmedia News and Global National released Friday suggest.

    Only 27 per cent of the poll's respondents said they'd want Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff to be top dog, compared with 14 per cent who support Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and 59 per cent who said Layton.

    Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Layton+prime+

  18. Maybe it would help if we stopped calling it a debate.

    I suggest this because it isn't actually a debate. Sure, there is a process of asking and answering questions by which the public has the opportunity to watch the leaders react, but that is only a commonality between the "leaders debate" and an an actual debate. This is no mere semantic objection. A debate is a process by which interested parties attempt to achieve understanding by subjecting claims to criticisms or by providing warrants in support of claims with the objective of attempting to resolve a specific and precisely formulated question. The participants in a debate have to also will a resolution of the question at hand.

    These key points are missing from the "leadership debate". The parties do not will a resolution to the question, for it is settled in their mind that they are the solution to the problem. Warrants and claims have been replaced by talking points which make mockery of meaning. Indeed, it is mere symbol-making, pandering to the base.

  19. But it is not up to you or up to me, Jenn.

    Ignatieff and all other leaders did have their say before the consortium decided on the format.

    Harper has stated openly what his preference was, namely the one-on-one debate.

    I have not heard Ignatieff's position on that.

    And, of course, the consortium does not need to have the last say. And I have not heard if Ignatiefff is willing to drop the consortium format and choose another one. Have you? I would love to hear his opinion on that. Perhaps we all would.

  20. For condition 7.c.(i), I think 5% of the popular vote is a better limit, since the established parties should always be under pressure from possible competitors: one of the objectives of any election is to get the electorate to THINK about the positions and solutions on offer by the parties, and widening that debate is never a bad idea.

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