'Everybody's got a camera phone': Navigating the digital minefield of modern-day campaign debates

It’s the debate over forums and debates.

Many candidates would rather give debates a miss given how fraught with peril they are  

Candidates attend a debate at MacEwan Hall at the University of Calgary on Wednesday. There's some debate over the role of local candidates' debates, especially in the age of social media. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

It's the debate over forums and debates. 

Local candidate debates in the federal election, that is.

For decades it was a pretty standard election ritual — community associations, non-profits and other organizations herding local candidates into church basements and community halls to debate policies and platforms. To vie for our votes. 

Around Calgary, there are many groups holding candidate events during this election — some general and some on specific topics. 

Organizers say the events are important as voters get a chance to see their candidates up close. But some political watchers suggest the debates, mostly in the federal arena, only matter in tight races. Also, that the local candidate is almost a non-factor, as many voters make their decisions based on party and leader.

Certainly, of late, these debates, this particular aspect of the local democratic process, appears to have lost some of its lustre.

Wednesday night, the University of Calgary Students' Union and the Graduate Students' Association hosted an hour-long forum. Five of the seven candidates running in Calgary Confederation, a seat held at dissolution by Conservative Len Webber, were present. The NDP and the Libertarian Party of Canada candidates weren't there.

Webber, himself a former MLA, says he only plans to attend two debates during the campaign and Wednesday's was one of them. 

He says there's more value in pounding the pavement, knocking on doors to pick up votes. He says "99 per cent" of the people who attend debates and forums have already decided who they're going to vote for. And it can be tough to convince them to change their minds. 

But that's why he showed.

"To focus on that one per cent who are undecided, they are the reason I attend these debates," said Webber. 

Doug Baker, who was one of about 100 people in the audience Wednesday, says the events are an important part of the democratic and electoral process that gives people a chance to see and hear who the candidates really are.

"In other instances, we get what they want to tell us," he said.

Baker credited the moderators for keeping the candidates' responses to three minutes. "[They] did a great job of keeping their answers short and sweet and not allowing them to go onto their talking points," he said. 

"It's really important to have these kind of events," added Somshukla Chaudhuri, a PhD student also in the audience. "Because people can then come out and learn about the different policies and they can make informed decisions about where they want to see the country going," 

Democracy, right before your eyes. If you, and the candidates, show up.

But there are some, perhaps understandable, reasons why, given the way politics seems to work these days, many candidates would rather give debates a miss. 

The potential slip-up

Mount Royal University's Duane Bratt says he's seeing fewer debates and forums. 

"Typically," he says, "the front-runner or the incumbent doesn't show up."

Bratt says there are several reasons, among which is the idea that in uncompetitive races — where one party is heavily favoured and the local candidate has simply put his or her campaign on auto-pilot — are one of the problems.

This could be a problem in Calgary ridings where polls suggest Conservative candidates are expected to do very well.

As well, Bratt says there can be the desire to avoid a potential slip-up during a debate. There is a political risk in standing before the public to answer questions and debate opponents. 

Say something stupid, you could sink your campaign. A public appearance could become a political battlefield littered with potential landmines.

The social media/digital doorbell danger zone

Our modern politics occur in a social media world where an audience live-streaming and live-tweeting could trip up a candidate who drops an offensive word or controversial line. A line, which, because of technology, would no longer be limited to the audience in a church basement, but rather go viral.

"Everybody's got a camera phone and a local candidate making a misstep saying something controversial could put an entire campaign off on edge," said Bratt. 

He predicts we will see even fewer debates because of this danger.

"You're going to see less of these over time, it's because of the consequences of a misstep are much higher now than they used to be because of cellphones," he said.

Len Webber points out another new potential digital audio/visual dilemma — door-knocking.

"I find it interesting that nothing has come forward yet in a doorbell camera of a candidate saying something walking up to a door," Webber said. 

These are all known issues that some community organizers are taking into consideration. And they're trying to create new ways to encourage candidates to get up close and personal with Calgary voters.

Formats, forums and question lines

Jonathan Neufeld says forums "absolutely matter," as people try to meet their candidates, learn more about them and find out where the parties stand on various issues.

"To get access to [the candidates], to hear their opinions, to see them on stage and to really understand what each party's platform is," he said.

Neufeld is the president of the Tuscany Community Association — one of several associations joining to host a forum on Oct. 7 for candidates in Calgary Rocky Ridge.

"The benefit of doing a forum like this is the chance for all the candidates to be in one place at one time," he said.

In the hopes of getting them together, and avoiding some of the pitfalls of the former system, they're shaking things up a bit.

At the Calgary Rocky Ridge event, Neufeld says they are holding a 'forum', not a debate.

"So, we don't expect the candidates to engage each other in real-time," he said.

Neufeld says while the candidates are not provided questions in advance, he says the questions are "pre-selected" by the moderator to remove what he calls the "element of surprise."

"So we're careful to choose questions which allow the candidates to show off their platform and show off their positions. Our intent is not to trap anybody but rather to get as much information out there as possible."

He also says they limit questions from the audience.

"And by limiting questions from the floor we're hoping to make it a positive experience for everybody."

It's what could be described as a more politically correct way to host debates (or forums) in this digital age. But all this said, there's the question of how effective local events are in determining voter outcome.

"We do know that the local candidate makes anywhere from zero to five per cent difference and the rest of it is party and leader," said Bratt. 

Neufeld isn't so sure about that. He says a candidate's performance could sway some voters. 

"People do still want to know who the person is they'll be sending to Ottawa and this is a chance to meet that person and hear what they have to say," he said.

And Wednesday night, people in Calgary Confederation got the chance to do that as those hoping to represent them in parliament made their case.

Still valuable

"It's a real, honest and raw response you're getting from these candidates," said Tomiwa Oje.

"They don't have time to formulate answers," she said.

"When you're in the audience, I feel you get a more raw, unfiltered answer about the things that they think about with certain issues." 

Clockwise from top left: Tomiwa Oje, Nik Ewasechko, Doug Baker and Somshukla Chaudhuri turned out to watch a candidates debate at the University of Calgary on Wednesday. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Nik Ewasechko says attending the forum added insight.

"You've actually had the chance to see a candidate face-to-face and have a rational explanation for each of the policies that they stand for," said Ewasechko.

He also says it's "super important" for all of the candidates to attend. 

"I mean how can you say that you represent your constituents if you don't show up to town halls like this," he said. 

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


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