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The Debate Debate

One mayoral debate into it, and the perennial conundrum's already dominating the discussion. No, it's not taxes. It's not the tunnel. It's the question of how to run a debate, and everybody's got an opinion.

On Monday night, the Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group hosted the first mayoral throw-down of 2010. It's hard to fault anyone who goes to the extraordinary effort of booking a room, rounding up candidates, and getting bums in seats. Yes there were flaws with the format, prompting a cranky Andy Haydon to get up and leave before the final bell (it hasn't been reported anywhere, as far as I know, that Haydon had a prior engagement and was itching to split anyway...he said so to the audience). He felt he hadn't been included, and he was right: Organizers decreed members of the audience must direct their questions to two candidates only. It should have come as a surprise to no one that nearly all the questions went to O'Brien and Watson, leaving the other seven to twiddle their thumbs. (At one point Joseph Furtenbacher asked, "Can I go sit in the audience?") 

So should organizers have trimmed the debate down to the perceived front-runners? I used to think I knew the answer to that question. Of course they shouldn't. The fringers only molder in the electoral gulag because we in the media aren't giving them a fair chance to air their views. Then, in 2006, the CBC aired a live mayoral debate where we did include all the candidates. We begged the network for the air time, and we got it. All participants agreed to the ground rules. But a few minutes in, one of them objected to the format, which she felt favoured the front-runners. She torpedoed the broadcast for what seemed like 15 minutes (what was that Warhol said again?), ruining it for everyone. She wanted to be dragged from the stage, so she could show the world she was being oppressed.

It's difficult to condemn OTAG for trying to be inclusive. But by inviting nine candidates to Monday's party, and organizing it the way they did, the result was inevitable. The front-runners dominated. When the "fringers" did get a chance to speak, some seemed very reasonable. But others didn't. One, Robin Lawrance, clearly has some personal issues he needs to overcome before he should be allowed to participate in another public debate. Should he, along with other candidates who have no campaign organization, no website, and -- let's be frank -- few good ideas, be given the same air time as the three or four individuals who are working very hard to be your mayor? I'm not so sure anymore.

Walter Robinson has an interesting take related to all this here

Organizers will always have to deal with the problem of balancing inclusiveness and practicality. No one seems to have struck the perfect balance yet, but there's lots of time between now and October 25th to experiment.

Incidentally, Round 2 is tonight. They're expecting 10 or 11 candidates, last I heard. 

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