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  Main > Commentary > Debating debates
Voting Day October 21, 2003  

Debating debates
Peter Boswell | Oct. 10

Most independent observers of last Tuesday’s leaders’ debate were critical of both the format and content – one even compared the debate to “watching paint dry.” While the province’s voters got an opportunity to see and hear the three party leaders in action, my prediction in the previous column of “an interesting evening” was way off the mark. Sorry about that.

Each party’s spin-doctors gave predictably full marks for their leader’s performance, but the reality was that only NDP leader Jack Harris emerged from the debate relatively unscathed. Tory leader and front-runner Danny Williams came across a bit too aggressive, even bordering on being rude, for persistently talking over his opponents during the two-minute debate segments.

The real loser in the debate was Liberal leader Roger Grimes, who not only seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease, but repeatedly allowed himself to be lectured to by Danny Williams. For a seasoned politician, his first debate as leader of the party was a disaster, especially as it was a golden opportunity for him to capitalize on the most recent Telegram public opinion poll showing that he had regained last May’s level of voter preference as premier.

Debate won't carry much punch

But will the debate and voters’ perceptions of the leaders’ performances have any effect on the election outcome? Probably not. The debate was held early in the campaign and most studies show that their impact lasts only a short time before being overtaken by other events. Further, voter interpretation of debate performance tends to be heavily influenced by previously-held views of the leaders and parties. Debates tend to reaffirm positions rather than changing them.

What isn’t so clear is the effect of a leader refusing to take part in a debate. Danny Williams announced at the beginning of the campaign that he would take part in only one debate, whereas Roger Grimes and Jack Harris indicated their eagerness to participate in as many debates as possible.

At a debate organized this week by the Canadian Federation of Students at Memorial University, Williams was conspicuous by his absence. While this, no doubt, allowed the other leaders to make their points uninterrupted, it likely alienated some students. However, if it is true that debates do little to change the minds of uncommitted voters, then the damage done will be minor.

Pitching policies in not priority

The question remains as to whether debates are a useful way of getting policy across or are they little more than acting or personality contests? While voters watching a debate may glean some snippets of policy from the discussion, the time-limited format prevents details from being presented.

On the other hand, it’s not likely that many policy details are either presented or understood in the coffee shop, factory gate, or ‘meet and greet’ form of campaigning that Danny Williams considered more important than taking part in more than one debate.

What about big rallies, then, as policy dissemination forums? While big rallies certainly provide an opportunity for leaders to speak at some length about their parties’ policies, most of the attendees at such events are already strong party supporters. In any case, the main purpose of such events is to encourage and fire up party workers not to convince them of the virtue of party policies.

Media and the parties' messages

So in trying to reach uncommitted voters, leaders must rely on the radio, television, and newspapers. For the most part, though, the media tend to be more interested in sound bites, news clips, and “streeter” interviews than in in-depth analysis of party policies. Even the efforts made by the media to offer a comparison of party stands on important issues can only provide a quick overview of sometimes quite complex matters.

Having said that, it’s rather sad to hear of voters who say that the party leaders are not providing specifics of what they propose to do and who complain about not having enough information. All three major parties in the election have provided relatively easy access to their web sites which contain the entire policy books.

That’s fine, you may be thinking, but what about voters who may not have access to fast internet connections? In that case, they can request the policy books from their local candidates, and if they can’t or won’t provide them, then they don’t deserve to be elected.

Was Campbell right?

Of course, some politicians and even voters may agree with a comment made by former Prime Minister Kim Campbell that election campaigns are “no time for in-depth policy discussions.” Ms. Campbell, who was known for speaking her mind (as well as for dramatically losing the 1993 election), may well have been reflecting on the difficulty of carrying on a real policy debate during the hectic schedule and activities of an election campaign.

But how else can voters make a rational choice about which party to support? All three party leaders seem to be relying on a new mantra of “it’s the right thing to do” in support of whatever policy direction they are proposing. At one level, all three party leaders can agree on policy principles, but as the old saying goes, ‘the devil’s in the details.’

Our next column will look at some of those details.

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Peter Boswell Dr. Peter Boswell is the former head of Memorial University's political science department. He has taught courses on politics in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as municipal administration. Boswell frequently appears on CBC Radio as a commentator. Currently on sabbatical, he is writing a book on provincial elections in Newfoundland and Labrador since 1949.



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