OPINIONS_Leaders_WHOTOOKTHISPHOTOSEAN_WEB.
courtesy Frank Gunn

Leaders must participate in federal debates

By Emilie Medland-Marchen, September 10, 2015 —

Televised election debates haven’t received the respect they deserve this Canadian federal election campaign. Back in May, Stephen Harper announced he would not participate in the traditional consortium debates that have historically been a focal point for Canada’s federal elections. Instead, he agreed to participate in five independent debates staged by various organizations.

The announcement was met with media criticism. Worryingly, it also kicked off a string of absences and apathy from other political parties. NDP leader Tom Mulcair responded by stating he would only participate in debates if the Prime Minister was present. Although Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Green Party leader Elizabeth May expressed their intent to participate, there has been little push from their parties to reinstate the consortium debates. No one is particularly keen to participate in a debate without the Prime Minister present.

The decision to opt out of a debate where Harper isn’t present is a smart move on behalf of the NDP, who have a good chance to oust the Conservatives in the upcoming election. But Harper is still running the show, picking and choosing which debates to participate in. As the incumbent, his decisions have a lot of sway, and other parties are following suit.

But these debates have a direct impact on the political engagement of Canadian citizens. The consortium debates are traditional, but they’re an important moment in the federal campaigns for many Canadians. With a nationally televised debate, party leaders are forced to confront each other over key issues while the nation watches.

Without the debates, we get a calculated, precise and ultimately false representation of our political leaders. Canadians must rely on the appearances of political leaders in towns and cities across the nation, which are carefully planned to make candidates look as good as possible. Everything the leaders say is edited into perfect sound bites and every moment is set up as the best possible photo op.

In a debate setting, leaders have the opportunity to be candid and unscripted. It’s more difficult to manipulate what they say and do, meaning Canadians get a slightly more genuine look at their political prowess in action. Adept politicians should be able to answer tough questions and handle criticism from other leaders.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see these candid moments during this election — a scenario that almost always benefits the incumbent party. The calling of the federal campaign early, the withdrawal from consortium debates, the refusal to publicly answer tough questions about the Duffy scandal — this campaign has been tailored to suit Harper from the beginning. We need to implement some sort of regulation to prevent our future Prime Ministers and parties in power from dancing between the lines.

Munk debates organizer Rudyard Griffiths suggested that Canada needs a national debates commision. This is a good solution to prevent the same kind of political meandering
in the future. We need an independent commissioner that sets the rules well in advance of the election call so none of the parties have wiggle room to opt out of an important part of the democratic process.

We need to hold the parties accountable to their promises in a nationally televised event. Our politicians should be trained to handle tough questions and face their opponents head-on. Without this regulation, we end up with a host of leaders who prefer to skip out on debates whenever they don’t feel like getting their hands dirty.

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