Nova Scotia·Analysis

Tory leadership debate format allows little time for robust expression of ideas

Actual debate has been limited among contenders for the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership through the first three debates.

Candidates have limited opportunities to speak about their policies and visions or question others

The five candidates for the Nova Scotia Tory leadership gathered in Tusket, N.S., on Thursday for the third of six debates. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Three debates later, it could still be a challenge for some undecided Tory members to make up their minds about who should be the next Progressive Conservative leader in Nova Scotia.

Part of the problem is the format of the debates, which leave little opportunity for the candidates to express their own policy ideas or challenge those of their opponents.

The format in Tusket on Thursday was the same as the previous two debates: opening statements, five questions and closing remarks. The questions, which include some submitted by the public, touch on health care, education and economic development, along with two other topics that vary.

That leaves candidates with little time to speak about issues with any kind of depth or nuance. With just two minutes to answer each question, candidates in the first three debates often spent less time answering the actual questions than they did promoting other ideas or indulging in partisan sloganeering.

In a party leadership race, it would make sense that candidates would take shots at the current provincial and federal governments, given that they are both Liberal. But too often, these shots seem an attempt to score cheap partisan cheers at the expense of any concrete details or ideas.

Nowhere is this more evident than when candidates talk about plans to cut taxes and spending. The ideas floated so far — lowering the HST, personal and corporate income tax reductions and cutting the province's overall budget —necessitate finding major savings in other areas.

Many opposition politicians insist there are big savings to be found through efficiencies and eliminating wasteful spending. However, once in power, just as many find out there just isn't that much fat to trim. The argument becomes even more difficult when one considers the current government, though Liberal on the ballot, is as fiscally conservative as any government in recent memory.

Eyes on the clock

These are conversations that should be part of vigorous debate. Likewise with any health care plans and policies. The challenges facing the health-care system demand a vision or plan beyond simply criticizing the current government.

But with the candidates mindful of the digital clock counting down before them, and knowing the next question will have nothing to do with the question they're in the process of answering, it becomes difficult to be expansive.

It's in this case where John Lohr's efforts to distinguish himself as being the most right-leaning of the candidates perhaps works for him.

Trying to sell ideas

Lohr freely admits his ideas won't appeal to everyone, but they're also ideas that don't need any real debate to determine whether what he's promising would actually be possible: he's in favour of allowing fracking; he wants to end the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation monopoly; and he wants to fire the Nova Scotia Health Authority board and CEO, moving operations into the Health Department.

Whether those are popular ideas within this race and whether they would play in a general election are reasonable questions, but his ability to do them if he wins and eventually becomes premier is not in doubt.

It becomes far more difficult, for example, for Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin to prove that as premier she'd be able to trim five per cent off the $10.8-billion provincial budget without major structural changes, or how Julie Chaisson would offset lowering the HST to 13 per cent.

3 debates remain

The debate format grants each candidate three 30-second rebuttals. Few candidates have used all of them in any debate, but it's the rare occasions when they are used that real debate sometimes creeps in.

That's what happened Thursday when Chaisson and Smith-McCrossin exchanged pointed and differing views on how they'd approach the public service. It was a moment of true debate, one that allowed the candidates to clearly distinguish themselves from each other.

Undecided voters no doubt will hope for more moments like that in the final three debates.

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About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca