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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