What’s the real issue here?

In this election, debate on policy has taken a back seat

In last week’s English-language debate, Stephen Harper didn’t bother mentioning his income-splitting plan or proposed fitness tax credit. Neither Jack Layton nor Michael Ignatieff talked about their support for cap and trade policies. Layton only brought up old age pensions once and Ignatieff only squeezed in one mention of his home renovation tax-credit promise. In fact, there was almost no policy discussion at all.

That explains why there were significantly fewer mentions of the major policy issues in newspapers following the debate, says Stuart Soroka, the McGill University political scientist who runs the Federal Election Newspaper Analysis Project. (Soroka tracks which issues get written about in eight major English language papers, and the tone of the coverage. Maclean’s publishes analysis of the results each week.) “The debate seems almost invisible,” says Soroka, referring to its impact on the statistics. “If the objective was to get people to think more seriously about policy differences, it sure didn’t happen.” Only health care was written about in a greater share of stories following the debate, up from 12 to 14 per cent. Crime and justice fell from 54 to 31 per cent. Even the economy dropped from 32 to 22 per cent.

Not all debates are so unmoving. When Martin challenged Harper on gay marriage and abortion in 2004, social issues moved to the front pages. In 2008, coverage shifted to the economy after the debate.

While there was no clear winner, Harper improved his share of “first-mentions.” His name came first in 71 per cent of the stories analyzed, up from 63 per cent. That was mainly at the expense of Ignatieff, who dropped from 21 to 15 per cent.

As for buzzwords, “coalition” still garnered 123 mentions last week and “contempt” hung on to 52 mentions. But “income splitting” fell from 30 to seven, “home renovation” dropped from nine to three and “learning passport” plunged from 12 to zero. “The debate was really a missed opportunity,” says Soroka. “If you tuned in to learn about policy differences between the parties, you probably didn’t learn anything.” Nor did you, apparently, in the newspaper coverage that followed.

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