Monday, May 25, 2015
The Debate About the Debates
“Pick your battles” is a wise adage for life, especially in the intensely competitive and adversarial arena that is politics. That is why we have a certain tolerance and even admiration for leaders who display this wisdom in their campaign strategies.
But what if that campaign seems never-ending, and the battles avoided include major issues of the day and time- worn avenues of democratic accountability? I am referring of course to the prime minister’s recent decision to not attend the traditional debates put on by the consortium of Canada’s major broadcasting networks. These debates have become known as “the” debates and one the key focal points of the election campaign: in 2011 the first English-language debate drew 10 million viewers. The only problem, from Mr. Harper’s perspective, is that he can’t control them. And that is why he prefers to have a Google/Globe and Mail debate on the economy in Calgary and a Munk debate on national security in Toronto instead. Smaller, more fragmented audiences looking at debates focusing on his preferred agenda, in his preferred context, suits him better.
By pulling out of the traditional consortium debates, the government has cleverly conflated two issues: one is that the idea of a broadcasting consortium effectively monopolizing and determining the debate format is no longer acceptable; the other is that it is acceptable for the government to unilaterally change the rules 5 months before an election. The government pretends that the former consideration legitimates the latter; it does not. All it suggests is that we should supplement the broadcasters’ debate with others, and then agree after the election to establish a Debates Commission to set the rules for the following election.
Perhaps the prime minister’s audacity wouldn’t seem so bad if it weren’t part of an even larger pattern of audacity that has characterized his entire tenure in power. We don’t have First Ministers’ conferences anymore, even though healthcare reform and battling climate change are of immense concern to Canadians and require a very high level of federal-provincial coordination. We don’t have wide open press conferences anymore either. Instead, we now have personal attack ads between elections, prorogations of parliament whenever a government is in danger of losing a vote of confidence, and omnibus budget implementation bills as the primary vehicle for unpopular measures that are neither budgetary nor about mere implementation. All of this has become simply routine.
If Mr. Harper is rewarded with another majority and becomes the most successful Conservative PM of modern times, his behavior will become the template for Conservatives, the unspoken political playbook for all politicians, and the 'new normal' for all young and immigrant Canadians, and even for a large number of older Canadians who don't bother to remember the honour system that once was. Is this the role model we want for politics in the future?