Editorial — How best to deal with election debates

It would be better if Elections Canada took over administration of debates, based on guidelines that were agreed to by all parties.

The Conservative Party has said it will not take part in the television debates organized by a consortium of television stations, thus finally breaking apart the monopoly on TV debates that has been held by the Canadian televison networks for the past 45 years.

That’s  a good thing. But manipulation by the Conservatives as to which debates their leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, will appear in is not a good thing.

While Harper is already committed to appear in several debates, there is far too much manipulation involved in this whole exercise. This is coming from a government that has taken manipulation from the prime minister’s office to a new level.

The Conservatives are correct in saying that people get information about political campaigns from a multitude of sources, not just television. In an age where social media is more important than ever, examining how to reach voters should be a major concern of every political party.

What the whole shouting match over debates has proven beyond a doubt is that the political parties and the media are not the ones to organize how political dialogue takes place during an election. Nowhere is this more true than in the organizing of debates where party leaders, who wield an inordinate amount of power under our system, discuss issues with each other.

It would be better if Elections Canada took over administration of debates, based on guidelines that were agreed to by all parties. While the points of agreement would likely be minimal, that is actually an advantage. A debate should not be so proscribed that it loses spontaneity or turns potential voters off.

The advantage in having it administered by the national election agency is that no one involved in organizing it would have a political or advertiser-driven agenda.

Debates between political party leaders are an important part of democracy, and are very important milestones during an election campaign. The federal debates need to be lively, catch significant voter attention and be scrupulously fair to all.