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Saturday, May 24, 1997

DO YOUR HOME WORK, SKIP LEADERS DEBATES Canadians pay far too much attention to the painful displays that offer no insight


May 24, 1997,  Ottawa Citizen

Politics is an endless debate. The leaders debates, which have become a fixture of Canadian general elections since 1979, are brief episodes in that debate. They are a contrivance that distorts the reality of the election contest and are paid far too much attention. It would be best if they did not take place at all.

The observation is now trite that it is the media reaction to the debates rather than the debates themselves that has the most influence on the election results. Last week's debates will be seen as defining moments and turning points in the history of the election. They were none of that. Such analysis reinforces the distortion worked by the debates on the election.

Though I have tapes of leaders debates going back to 1984, I have never actually watched one through. They are at once painfully rehearsed and stilted and ragged and disorganised. Anyone who follows politics will hear nothing new and learn nothing new about the characters of the leaders.

Most of the audience must be political enthusiasts who will root for their champions. People who tune in to help decide who to vote for are choosing the lazy and worst route to a decision. If all you know of politicians is the debates, you are seeing politicians at their worst with no background from which to assess their performances critically. If you have the background, you do not need to see the debate.

But for journalists as much as voters the debates are the lazy way of following the election and we have become fixated on them.

The inspiration of leaders debates is the American presidential election debates going back to the classic Kennedy Nixon debates of 1960. American presidential candidates are running for the same office in an entrenched two party system.

Our parliamentary government being radically different the American debates provide no model for us and distort our politics when they are imitated. Real Canadian nationalists would see this and object to leaders debates on that ground.

The debates exaggerate the importance of the leaders, even Jean Chr├ętien. The distortion is extreme this time round as we all know that only Jean Chr├ętien will come out of the election as Prime Minister. The other parties are simply jockeying for position in opposition. The inclusion of Gilles Duceppe in the English debate and Preston Manning in the French debate is bizarre, as neither leader expects or wants the votes of the respective audiences.

But the debates have always distorted the election campaigns by giving leaders an audience out of a contrived fairness that they should earn by their support, work and persuasiveness. The debates reinforce the tendency to see the parties as nothing more than the leaders' vehicles. Preston Manning at least, if he were lucid and principled, should decline to participate or send a spokesman for his party. But Reform is nothing but Manning and despite his professed populism he knows it.

In the recent British election there was for the first time a serious prospect of a leaders debate. Happily, Tony Blair was able to bury the prospect in the details of the arrangements. The Tories tried to tag him as chicken, but without a tradition of leaders debates in Britain it had no discernible effect. We can only hope that some future leaders will have the courage to refuse a leaders debate.

France is also holding parliamentary elections, but there will be no leaders debates. French television is running one on one debates between spokesmen for two at a time of the many parties, not always leaders. These are firmly but unobtrusively moderated with a digital clock showing how long each participant has talked and the moderator intervening to even up the time. These debates will not mark turning points or defining moments in the campaign, but with the lightening articulacy of the French political class they make good informative television.

The television networks still conspire to force the leaders debates on us. They should leave it to the CBC, which reaches everyone in Canada with a television, and by offering their usual fare test more fairly how much we really want the debates. At least cable now offers most of us alternative viewing.

The money and air time saved by the private networks not carrying the debates could be put to better use by offering focused debates between other politicians on the French model. Paul Martin could take on Alexa MacDonough. Lewis Mackenzie could debate Douglas Young. Deborah Gray could clash with Svend Robinson. All of these could prove much more exciting and informative than the leaders debate. They would also test the fitness of the participants to serve in parliament rather than leaving them simply to cheer on their leaders and slave away at their local campaigns.

As it is, if politicians are not just newscast sound bites they are too often interviewed and too little forced to debate. Most political interviewers let our leaders off easy while maintaining a detached and slightly cynical pose. Local stations run lots of panels with candidates from each of the major parties, but these are more like confused group interviews than debates.

Above all, if there are to be debates, the people should be kept out of it. The questions from earnest members of the public with their posed indecision are simply a distraction in a distraction.