The purpose of a political debate between leaders who aspire to power is to demonstrate their mastery of the issues and ability to think quickly on their feet combined with solid judgment. Improvisation and generalities may work at first, but voters eventually want to know “what’s in it for me”.
This past week we have seen two contrasting debates in Canada and the United States – the Republican national candidates’ debate on August 16 and the Canadian federal party leaders’ debate on August 17.
While I will not get into the policy positions of each candidate, I will discuss briefly the communications aspects of each debate and the impact they may have had on an enquiring electorate.
The Republican debate was an exercise in showmanship – Trump being Trump and others trying to out-Trump Trump. While a few got some relevant policy issues in (Fiorina with her way to handle Russia’s President Putin, Kasich’s plea to find a way to bring people together rather than divide the nation, and Christie’s observation that Trump and Fiorina’s success have little impact on the life of Joe Sixpack), the rest seemed to be about bombast and getting jabs in against other candidates. The bar was set low, and candidates delivered in spades – avoiding getting into policy details about how each would tackle the problems the US faces and how their policies would improve the lives of common folk.
Over 24 million Americans viewed the Republican debate, mainly to see what new outrageous thing front-runner Donald Trump would say and how his opponents would react and respond. The major effect seemed to be a version of Trump’s television program “The Apprentice” – let’s see who gets “fired” this time!
If the Republican debate had too many participants and viewers, the Canadian campaign may have had too few. The Conservative party refused to participate in debates on major networks, preferring to appear in debates on networks with far fewer viewers and much smaller audiences. In fact there will be another English debate on the Consortium of the three major Canadian networks on October 8 and a French one on Oct. 7 without the Conservatives. These will get much more viewership and will cost the Conservatives dearly.
As well, the decision by the organizer of the debate, the Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) not to invite Green leader Elizabeth May (whose party holds two out of 338 seats in Parliament) and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe (whose party also has only two seats) made the debate an incomplete exercise to many. This sent a message of misogyny to some, and of arrogance to others.
However the Canadian debate shone with leaders of the three major parties demonstrating a skill in debate techniques as well as a mastery of the issues confronting Canadians. Regardless of whether you agreed with one or another, their detailed knowledge and ability to express it in common sense terms and easily understandable language made for effective communications.
Leaders debated key issues rather than engage in personality attacks, defended their past performances and that of their parties, and set out detailed proposals on the issues facing Canadians. This left the viewers with a good grasp of what they could expect from each leader should he win. I for one walked away better informed on both the challenges facing Canadians and the impact each leader’s policies could have on my life.
A well-informed electorate is a fundamental condition for a vibrant and effective democracy. Providing voters with a strong and detailed vision of how policies could impact on their lives is an essential element of political communication.
In this sense, the Canadian way of concentrating the campaign to a few weeks (as opposed to the never ending electoral cycle in the United States) and debating issues of relevance to the broad strata of society seems to me to be a more effective and efficient way of dealing with the business of democracy.
What say you?
Eduardo del Buey
Crosshairs Communications Ltd.