Against leaders debates

POTTER: Elizabeth May could make her exclusion a point of pride

Here we go again. Just like last time, the “consortium” has made a decision not to invite Elizabeth May to the leaders’ debates.  And just like last time, after initial protestations that the decision is entirely up to the consortium, the party leaders are caving to some sort of perceived public pressure and suggesting that, oh, well, they would certainly be open to having the leader of the Green Party there after all.

I’m genuinely agnostic on the question of whether May should be there; I think there are defensible arguments to be made for both sides. But the question over whether to include her or not contains a tacit assumption, viz., that the leaders’ debates—as currently run—are themselves worthy democratic exercises. I think they are not.

Start by making a list of all the things people say they dislike about our political culture: the stage-management of public appearances, the scripted way in which  politicians stick to their talking points and never answer a direct question,  the hyper-partisanship, the casual character assassination, the reduction of opponents positions or views to caricatures…

And then think about what goes on at the leaders’ debates, where virtually every negative aspect of our political culture is exacerbated and amplified. This might be worth it if there was some sort of tradeoff, where voters learned important things about the men and women who were applying  for our top political job. Or if the debate served as a platform for the party leaders to put their best face forward, so that we could see them at their most prime ministerial.

But no one could plausibly make that case. For the two decades or so I’ve been paying serious attention, the debates have been a cringe-inducing affair. I can’t see how anyone ever comes away from them thinking that democracy has been well-served; if anything, the debates have probably long served as a powerful instrument of voter suppression.

Given that, it is hard to see why Elizabeth May wants to be involved in the first place. She could even make her exclusion a point of pride: While Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe are braying away like jackasses in both official languages, she could take the opportunity to do a little counter-programming: a town hall, a round-table, an academic lecture, a game of ping-pong… who knows? It might actually draw an audience.

Meanwhile, the debates need to be either radically changed, or simply abolished. There are lots of suggestions floating around, some better than others. My own preference would be three or four debates, each conducted according to the rules of passive bilingualism we used in my old department at the University of Montreal:  Each participant is entitled to ask, or answer, any question in the official language of his or her choice.

In my ideal scenario, only one of the debates would involve the leaders. The others would be between government ministers and their portfolio critics in the opposition parties.

This would serve two useful functions. First, it would help reduce the “winner-take-all” character of the current debates, where everyone is afraid to take a risk lest there be a fabled knockout punch. Second, it would rehabilitate the principle of cabinet government. Everyone claims to abhor the way our democracy has slipped into governing from the centre, but the leader-centric nature of the debates only reinforces that tendency.

If the debates can’t be altered in this or some similar way, I’d just as soon see them abandoned altogether. Think of it this way: If our elections had evolved without the debates becoming an entrenched exercise, and someone came along and proposed that we establish the four-or-five-ring circus that we’ve had for the past few decades, would anyone think it was a good idea?

VIDEO: Andrew Potter on why leaders’ debates are useless

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