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10 2011

The Leaders’ Debate Tomorrow

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

Tomorrow night from the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa, I’ll be moderating my third federal leaders’ debate.   It truly is a singular honour to be asked to do this job, even though I’m a piker compared to Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe who, I believe, has done about a dozen leaders’ debates.   “I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records for it,” he told me with a smile, after the last debate in 2008.   It’s also inevitable in accepting the job that one opens oneself up to significant amounts of criticism.   Here are examples of the kinds of emails I’ve received from unhappy citizens over the years:   ·       Why can’t the Green Party be there? They may not have any MPs but they’re running candidates in every riding. ·       Why is Duceppe in the English-language debate? He only runs candidates in Quebec. ·       Why were they all sitting at a table? That doesn’t look prime ministerial enough.  ·       Why were they all standing at podiums? That’s too stiff and doesn’t encourage interchange among them. ·       Can’t the consortium change the rules? ·       Can’t they change the format, so the leaders aren’t all out there at once, but rather have some opportunities for one-on-one debate? ·       And my personal favourite: I refuse to watch this debate unless the leaders of all 19 parties running candidates are allowed to participate. (While I’ve avoided offering opinions on the other complaints, I will offer one here: a political debate with 19 leaders around a table? No!).   To be clear, I’m not a member of the consortium and had no say in any of the above. I do know that trying to come up with the perfect format is next to impossible.   Having said that, the consortium has tweaked the format each time out, trying to come up with a more meaningful experience for the voters. In fact, even before Conservative leader Stephen Harper challenged Michael Ignatieff to a one-on-one debate, and the Liberal leader responded with “any time, any place,” the consortium was exploring ways to incorporate that idea into the format, while still inviting the other leaders with seats in the House of Commons to participate.   What the consortium and the parties have come up with is not perfect, but I think it’s better, and speaks to Canadians’ wishes to see the four major parties at the table, while still offering an opportunity for the one-on-one confrontation that could produce some memorable exchanges.   Incorporating a one-on-one feature in the debate actually isn’t that new. A few decades ago, when leaders’ debates only featured three parties, I can well remember Pierre Trudeau and Joe Clark facing off against each other, while Ed Broadbent sat and waited his turn. Clark’s nervous laughter in the face of Trudeau’s probing comments and questions may have contributed to the Tory leader’s troubles at the polls.   Three decades later, that one-on-one component is returning, albeit in not quite the same way. Each segment of the debate will begin with a one-on-one exchange between two leaders, and then after six minutes of debate, the discussion will be opened to the other participants as well.   I’m a big fan of this change, particularly since I think our leaders will actually engage with each other. Too often, American politicians, when they do one-on-one debates, for some reason refuse to talk to each other, and talk only to the moderator.   Some of the most historically important moments in leaders’ debates have not come with five people at a table, but rather, in one-on-one confrontations at podiums. (And our four leaders will be standing at podiums Tuesday night).   No one could forget the electricity in the room when Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1988, laid waste Dan Quayle, his Republican counterpart, after Quayle had the temerity to compare his own political record to John F. Kennedy’s.   “Senator,” Bentsen began, “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”   Game, set, and match to Bentsen (although it was Quayle who became vice-president).     We can’t adopt the American approach because of our tradition to include more than just the two leading parties. But by incorporating this extra feature into our debate, we hope this will give Canadians the best of what many have told me they want to see --- head-to-head confrontations among the two men most likely to become prime minister, along with a broader consideration of the issues with the others.   Finally, can you guess what one piece of advice I’ve received more often than any other?   “Keep them civil, Steve,” a woman told me earlier this week, after I moderated a discussion at Victoria University in Toronto. “We want to hear them engage on the issues. But I can’t stand it when they all scream insults at each other.”   Amen to that.

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