The first and perhaps last English-language debate of this marathon federal election campaign to feature all major party leaders took place last night. No sooner had the candidates taken the stage than the various pundits and party hacks were spinning the thing this way or that, attempting to frame the manner in which voters would evaluate the debate and the various candidates. Justin Trudeau even managed to send well-timed tweets during the two-hour affair.
Since its conclusion, all manner of folks have weighed in on the event. Who did well? Who was the big winner? Who landed the best body blow? On and on they bleat and tweet.
Unfortunately, this obsession with winners and losers and knockout punches does a disservice to the entire process and to our national discourse. Politics isn’t sport, and last night’s federal leaders debate wasn’t a boxing match; this was not Don King’s Tussle in Toronto, but Canadians’ first and, distressingly, perhaps only opportunity to hear from and see all four major party leaders engaging with one another on issues of national import. Yet, the bulk of the coverage has been filtered through a sportscaster’s lens; most analysis about as thoughtful as a post-game scrum.
“INSERT LEADER’S NAME, ah, knew what s/he had to do, and ah, s/he went out there and, ah, you know, said the things s/he needed to say and, ah, well, you know, made some really good points, took it to INSERT OPPONENT’S NAME, which, well, you know, they had to do…”
The only winner last night was the Canadian people: they are the only ones who stand to lose, too. These debates are not for the leaders’ benefit — though you would not know it by the way the mainstream media has covered the spectacle. No, last night’s debate was for voters. If a particular leader did an exemplary job, as Elizabeth May did (despite, frankly, being virtually ignored by moderator Paul Wells), then the benefit was ours. Similarly, if certain leaders (*ahem* Messrs. Harper and Mulcair) refuse to participate in future debates or, worse, debate organizers (*cough* Globe and Mail, Google, THE CONSORTIUM) refuse to invite all the major party leaders to participate, Canadians lose.
In fairness to Rogers and Maclean’s Magazine, hosts of last night’s debate, the format they established for their forum was a decent one. Wells’ questions to the various leaders were thoughtful and occasionally even pointed. However, he neglected to ask perhaps the most important question of the night.
Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Mulcair and Ms. May: Given the three of you are united in your disagreement with Mr. Harper on virtually everything, and those differences between you are far fewer than the areas upon which you have common ground, why then are the three of you not working together to defeat the Conservatives?
Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Mulcair and Ms. May: You do realize your inability to set aside your specific policy differences and instead come together under a united, progressive ticket means Stephen Harper might win the next election? Surely, if the Conservatives can find room within their party to disagree on abortion, same-sex marriage and income splitting, for example, you can find room amongst your Liberals, New Democrats and Greens to do the same on just how robustly you help the middle class, combat climate change, oppose austerity, engage in armed conflict abroad and reform our electoral system?
Alas, Wells shied away from this line of questioning — despite the need for it being on full display. After all, between them, the Greens, Liberals and New Democrats enjoy the support of an overwhelming majority of Canadians; Stephen Harper, by contrast, a committed minority. However, as in the last one, Harper may well win 100 percent of the power with less than 40 percent of the votes. Madness. Never has the need for electoral reform been clearer or more urgent than right now.
In recent years, elections have been short, tightly scripted sprints. The primary objective for all parties involved has been to get through it as quickly as possible, without the wheels coming off their proverbial buses. The shorter the writ period, the thinking goes, the less room for mistakes.This election, however, which began on Sunday and continues through until October 19th, will be one of the longest in Canadian history. No doubt, Stephen Harper and his Conservative brain trust weighed the benefits of a short campaign against their $67 million war chest and decided any risks associated with a longer campaign would be outweighed by their singular ability to spend the rest of the parties into near bankruptcy.
There is an upside to Harper’s cynical gambit: despite Kim Campbell’s ill-advised quip that elections are not the time for serious debate, that is precisely what Canadians ought to demand of our political leaders and local candidates during this one: serious, substantive discourse. For once, our writ might just be long enough to allow Canadians to fully digest the panoply of policies on offer, and ensure we can take the time necessary to form thoughtful, informed decisions before casting our ballots on Election Day. It would be nice if the mainstream media and all party leaders agreed.
Originally published on Spectator Tribune.