Debating the debates -

Debating the debates


TVA has announced a series of three debates for the Quebec campaign.

Normally these debates are organized under the aegis of a consortium of Quebec television networks under the utterly fatuous notion that television networks put aside their corporate differences for the public good. But these are not normal times. And so, beginning Aug. 20, TVA anchor Pierre Bruneau will moderate (or referee, depending on your point of view), three days of one-hour debates anchored to the themes of government, the economy, social policy, and the issues of Quebec’s nature and identity.

The event kicks off with Liberal leader Jean Charest crossing political swords with Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois on Aug. 20, continues the following night with Francois Legault, head of the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Quebec butting heads with Charest and then finishes Aug. 22 with what might be the most interesting undercard in recent Quebec political history: Marois vs. Legault.

Radio-Canada will host a debate with four leaders on stage.

The next federal election isn’t for another three years, but it’s never too early to think about how the current national debate system—two debates, one in English, one in French, with four or five leaders onstage—could be changed.

Barring any dramatic changes in the party standings, the next federal campaign will begin with three parties recognized as official parties in the House of Commons (the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals) and two who are represented by MPs (the Bloc and Greens). Would the leaders of all five parties be invited to participate by the broadcast consortium? If the standard of 2011—any party with a seat in the House gets to participate—is applied, yes. Presumably a consortium would offer two debates, one in English, one in French, with five leaders on stage each time, one of whom (the Bloc leader) represents a party that most Canadians don’t have the option of voting for and another (the Green leader) who seems very unlikely, at present, to become Prime Minister.

There’s a case to be made that that’s too many people on stage at once. But there is, in my opinion, a more compelling case to be made that no one of sufficient standing—in this case, let’s use the consortium’s standard—should be excluded. For that matter, the last election should demonstrate the potential perils of prejudging a candidate’s chances for the purposes of identifying the “real” contenders*.

So I side with the argument that any party with an MP should be represented. But I also don’t like the current format. It’s not enough. So let’s have the CBC and Radio-Canada broadcast two bilingual debates—I find it silly that we separate the languages—with each of the five party leaders. Then let’s have one or more of the private broadcasters hold a debate with a format and roster of their choosing. Or have the CBC and Radio-Canada host one bilingual debate—the idea that we have to separate French and English strikes me as silly—and have the private broadcasters host two debates. Even if all three debates ended up featuring five leaders—though there’s got to be a way to justify conducting one debate with the leaders of the four national parties—we would at least have the benefit of an extra two hours of debate. Then let’s have someone revive something the CBC tried in 2008: a series of shorter, issue-specific debates featuring the applicable representative of each party.

How these debates in Quebec go over and how they play into the larger story of the election will be instructive, but the mere break from the federal standard should at least serve to remind that the current national setup is not unchangeable.

*Remember that for a brief moment near the start of last year’s campaign, it seemed there might be a one-on-one debate between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff. Jack Layton was unimpressed. A month later, the voters redeemed Mr. Layton’s argument.