Yesterday’s “new format” leaders’ debate originated with CityTV and radio network. City is not one of the media “consortium” whose national debate planned for October Stephen Harper intends to boycott. Tom Mulcair last week threatened to do the same.
A few days ago, I was venting my frustration about Mulcair’s latest position to a relative who is a highly experienced left-wing political activist. I have always liked “the national leaders’ debate.” (Let’s frame it for what it is and not denigrate it with Harper’s “consortium” brand which focuses on the producers and not the voters.) It is the one time when 10 million voters across the nation gather for a great national event, something which brings us together to consider the decision ahead. It is one of those all-too-few occasions in our national calendar when the nation stops and pays attention, together.
I understand why Harper doesn’t like the format. He has a ten-year record to defend and two (or three) against one is a challenge. Besides, he doesn’t like the CBC and anything he can do to harm the corporation suits him fine. And if the other big media companies are unhappy, that’s okay, too. He’s already gone out of his way to make their lives difficult recently and this is totally consistent. With the “consortium,” he can’t control the questions or curb who watches, both partisan advantages he needs. Every one knows that Harper is a control freak who doesn’t like access. No control, no Harper.
But Tom Mulcair? I was looking forward to all those millions of English-speaking Canadians watching a national debate, absent the incumbent prime minister. The stark symbolism of an empty rostrum would have been as suggestive as the PM working alone in his office at night. Actions speak louder than words. You couldn’t buy (or produce) a negative ad more effective than that.
So what is Mulcair’s motive in walking away from this multi-million dollar opportunity to connect with voters? Elizabeth May says that he (like Harper) doesn’t want her to participate in the debate and this is just another example of how the NDP really works with the Tories. My experienced politico relative says he understands that if Mulcair were leading in the polls, he would not want to set himself up for potential attack in the absence of Harper. He also says that these debates really don’t have any impact on the public; the public is only interested in the media analysis after.
I beg to differ. Has everyone forgotten the effect of the 5 o’clock shadow on Richard Nixon during the precedent-setting Nixon-Kennedy debate? Or the gutsy impression left by Kathleen Wynne when attacked by both sides in the recent Ontario election debate? The post-debate pundits said that provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak “won” the debate; the electorate thought otherwise. Voters do watch debates, and form impressions of character which are definitive.
My view is that the public needs to see the existing opposition debating together, all the better without Harper. They have more in common with each other than they have with the incumbent prime minister. A minority government, an accord (as in Ontario in the mid-80s), or a coalition between the existing opposition parties are real post-election possibilities. Voters need to know that this result is a viable democratic alternative (not an aberration, as Harper would say), and that it need not lead to weakness and instability. Besides, isn’t Mulcair wanting proportional representation? A new voting system will need new skills, including the capacity to negotiate solutions between different parties for common interests. Where better to foreshadow that perspective than in a leaders’ debate without the current prime minister?
In a “positive” debate, leaders could score debating points by highlighting common interests and demonstrating their leadership in negotiating to solutions. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? And a real change in Ottawa?