One-on-one leaders debates would strengthen democratic discourse

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Thursday March 3, 2011.   Preston Manning

A televised debate among federal political leaders at election time has become a fixture of our democratic system. But the manner in which these debates are structured leaves much to be desired. Improvements are in order if public and media interest is to be strengthened.

More than 30 years ago – when these debates were becoming institutionalized during the campaigns of 1979, 1984 and 1988 – the format featured one-on-one debates among the principal contenders. The public was well engaged – most viewers stayed with the debates until the end – and the television networks were relatively satisfied as well.

But the 2006 debate was strongly criticized for its barroom-brawl quality and its failure to illuminate genuine choices for the voters. The 2008 debate was also a chaotic fiasco – not so much the fault of the participants as that of the format.

First, the leaders were seated – an appropriate posture if one is engaged in an interview or a collegial dialogue, but an unnatural posture if one is truly debating. If you are to participate in a debate in the House of Commons and you remain sitting, the Speaker will not recognize you. And if you are participating in a formal debate at a university (such debates, properly organized, still have the capacity to attract lively interest from young people) and you remain seated, someone in the crowd will yell, “Stand up!”

Second, in the 2008 debate, five participants were all trying to talk at once, supposedly to each other but, in fact, each primarily trying to engage the Prime Minister. If what the opposition leaders are really trying to achieve is one-on-one engagement with the Prime Minister and one-on-one engagement with each other, why not accommodate them by returning to the “head-to-head” format that worked reasonably well in earlier debates. To do so will enable a fuller, richer exploration of key issues and the contrast between the positions of the respective parties.

Third, debates organized in the 2008 format fail to showcase the distinctive positions and abilities of the participants and end up contributing to the “democracy deficit.” Like Question Period as currently conducted in the House, they tend to discredit rather than enhance democratic discourse.

While more Canadians initially tuned in to the televised leaders debate in 2008 than to any other communication event associated with that election, few stayed to the end. Voter turnout in that election was the lowest in Canadian history.

Executives of Canada’s TV networks must dread the day when they will be approached to carry yet another leaders debate. If they express a lack of enthusiasm, they will be accused of thwarting the democratic process; if they accede to another debate such as the 2008 one, they will see ratings plunge and be accused of contributing to the democracy deficit.

I am convinced that one-on-one debates will be more productive and satisfying from the standpoint of the public, the media and the participants themselves. The best brains among the networks, the communications industry and the parties should be applying themselves to this challenge – the sooner the better if the objective is to raise the quality of democratic discourse in Canada’s next federal election.

Preston Manning, the former leader of the Reform Party, is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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