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The debate about having more debates

It’s hard to disagree with Andrea Horwath’s call for more leaders’ debates this campaign. While the five of them she proposes might be a little excessive, one is clearly too few. With only a single 90-minute sprint through the issues, it’s just too easy for each leader to stick to his or her talking points.

Unfortunately, it’s also hard to imagine there will be a significant change to the debate routine, because there are just too many hurdles.

One of the usual problems with trying to have the leaders share the stage more often during a campaign is that it’s not perceived to be in the interest of whichever one holds power to begin with. One of the advantages of being the incumbent premier, if you know how to use it, is that you get to look reassuringly premier-like on the campaign trail; appearing on stage as an equal with the other two leaders levels that playing field. It’s also not all that advantageous spending more time than necessary being ganged up on.

Kathleen Wynne has some tendency to approach these sorts of decisions unconventionally, so it’s possible she’d be more open to extra debates than Dalton McGuinty was. It’s probably worth noting that whereas in 2011 Mr. McGuinty was the only one of the three leaders to take a pass on a separate debate in the province’s north, Ms. Wynne challenged the other leaders to such a meeting this time around.

But even if all three leaders did want to square off before a province-wide audience three or four or five times, there’s another major barrier: the consortium of television networks that turns over its airwaves to such events.

Those who’ve been involved in negotiations about debate logistics will attest that the broadcasters aren’t all that enthusiastic about even one debate, because it means pre-empting usual programing and losing advertising revenue. So there’s not much chance they’d be willing to do it a second or third time, let alone a fourth or fifth.

It’s frankly not entirely clear in this day and age why a debate needs to be on CBC, CTV and Global simultaneously. Once upon a time the saturation may have compelled some viewers to watch simply because they didn’t have other options, but that’s not the way most of us consume media any more. So presumably the debates could just go on one station at a time, and people who wanted to watch could watch.

In the heat of campaigns, though, all concerned have a tendency to default back to what’s been done traditionally. Unless there’s already been some work done to overhaul the debate format – and there have been no indications to that effect – it probably won’t happen now.

analysisandrea horwath
Filed under: Ontario Election

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