Column: Debate this: Are voters being served?

In the debate over the leaders debates of the upcoming federal campaign, common sense suggests that the public interest would be best served by ensuring that they are available to the largest possible audience.

Over and above any other consideration, the debates have been a powerful tool to raise public awareness in the lead-up to elections. More than 14 million viewers tuned in for the two televised encounters before the 2011 election.

Logic would also dictate that regardless of their official language, all Canadians should have easy access to the debates in English and in French.

Voters should be able to see for themselves how each leader interacts in the other language with the other so called solitude.

It should be a given that francophones who live outside Quebec be able to watch debates in their own language on television as well as online and that the leaders discuss themes in terms that are not essentially Quebec-centric.

For all their imperfections the debates that Canada’s main television networks jointly produced in the past met those fundamental objectives. Any substitute formula should, at a minimum, meet them too.

That is not to argue that the format cannot be improved or that there should not be more debates, in a variety of venues.

But the overall goal of any reform should be to expand the election conversation, not restrict it.

The latest Conservative proposal fails that test.

Rather than build on an already large audience it stands to fragment it.

The plan would theoretically see Stephen Harper participate in more debates – as many as three in English and two in French – as long as the consortium of major broadcasters is not in charge of any of them.

There is no reasonable rationale for such an exclusion.

On the contrary, the last two Quebec provincial campaigns have demonstrated that thinking out of the debate box need not lead to an either/or proposition of the kind put forward by the ruling party this week.

Those campaigns featured two debates: one jointly produced by Radio-Canada and TÈlÈ-QuÈbec along more traditional lines and another on TVA a week later that featured a different format.

The result was an enriched election conversation rather than a truncated one.

By contrast, under the Conservative plan, TVA would alone produce one of the French-language debates. That’s fine as far as Quebec goes but the province’s main private network does not reach far beyond its borders.

By excluding Radio-Canada from the list of organizations whose invitation to debate they would consider, the Conservatives stand to limit access to the French-language debate(s) outside Quebec to those who can stream it on a computer.

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In English as in French, it is hard to see how the argument of a multi-channel universe justifies cutting out Canada’s largest broadcast news organizations – including its national public broadcaster – from taking an active hand in the exercise.

The Conservative proposal has been cast as an attempt to trap Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau into taking part in more than the usual two debates.

Based on Trudeau’s question period performance, conventional wisdom has it that he will be at a net disadvantage on the leaders’ podium.

But Harper’s bid, as it now stands, is more certain to lower the profile of the debates and hence the risk that they could turn into a game-changer for one of his opponents than to put Trudeau on the spot.

It would be imprudent to assume that this is just a game of chicken that could yet see the Conservatives relent rather than have the other leaders debate – at the invitation of the consortium – in Harper’s absence.

The next election is set to feature a three-way national battle on a scale unprecedented in the past and the Conservatives’ re-election prospects rest heavily on a division of the opposition vote in their favour.

Harper may feel that he has more to gain from letting Thomas Mulcair and Trudeau spend a few evenings in prime time going for each other’s jugular than from sparring with them. But whatever the thinking behind all this is, it is not based on the best interest of voters.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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