Debates ain't what they used to be

A Town Crier Community Column

Maybe it was the weather that night (lousy).

Maybe it was candidate boredom (appearing in their seventh debate of this campaign).

Or maybe it was voter fatigue (the Oct. 6 provincial election marks the 10th trip to the polls voters in Parkdale–High Park will have taken at all three levels of government in the past eight years).

One’s tempted to call it a plague of democracy. Some around the globe give up their lives for it; increasingly, we in the West opt to sleep through it.

Whatever the reason, it’s fair game to call the election debate at Runnymede United Church a couple of weeks back one of the lamest exercises of its sort in recent memory. Too often the candidates served up snoozy boilerplate replies to questions from voters who, by and large, failed to engage the contestants in any meaningful — or entertaining — way.

It never seemed this way before. The Bloor West Village Residents Association has a well-deserved reputation for hosting lively candidate debates where all sides jump in — voters and candidates alike — with arms and legs flailing.

Not this time. Whereas previous debates in the venerable church basement have attracted capacity crowds of 200 or more, this night the audience barely reached 100 including the soundman, custodian and volunteer organizers.

In an post mortem of the evening afterward and in subsequent emails going ’round, it was suggested maybe the format needs repairing; that the customary method of having a ticket draw determine who is allowed to ask questions might need changing. This approach usually manages to eliminate most softball questions from party cheerleaders in attendance.

Not so. A portend of the evening ahead became apparent when the first three ticket draws failed to produce a person willing to pose a question.

It seems we’ve exhausted the pool of issue-based questions left to ask candidates. More-and-more of these so-called debates only serve to give candidates an increasingly stale platform to repeat, regurgitate and reinforce talking points already available on their party’s websites, in partisan brochures and through the echo chamber of social media.

It’s all out there even before candidates take the stage. Like McDonald’s or Holiday Inn hotels, expect neither surprises nor originality at today’s all-candidates meeting.

Perhaps it’s time we outlawed the traditional election debate and replace it with something akin to that old, but very popular, CBC television talk show Front Page Challenge wherein panelists would attempt to defrock a celebrity guest by getting beyond the mask that guarded their public persona. It was intelligent and entertaining; in fact it was everything our current model of election campaign debates badly lack.

Or maybe the cure is to do nothing at all.

After a torrent of voting over the past decade we could be heading for a prolonged electoral drought. Should either the Conservatives or Liberals win a majority at Queen’s Park this month the next provincial vote won’t happen until October 2015. Ditto for Stephen Harper and his majority in Ottawa who are safely cocooned from voters until the same month, same year.

Meanwhile, the Ford brothers will be running Toronto in their own image until October 2014.

By then we should be ravenous for an all-candidates debate like we enjoyed in the good ol’ days.

About this article:

By: Greg Hamara
Posted: Oct 4 2011 1:30 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto