Ottawa·Analysis

Why we need a Watson vs. Doucet showdown

Voters deserve a real debate between Mayor Jim Watson and his only serious challenger, former city councillor Clive Doucet, Joanne Chianello writes.

Inviting 10 candidates to every debate may seem democratic, but fails voters

Clive Doucet, left, and Jim Watson, right, are arguably the only two substantial contenders in this year's mayoral campaign. Let's hear them square off against each other. (CBC News)

It was an impressive feat of organization for Carleton University's residence association to gather together 10 of the 12 registered mayoral candidates for a debate Tuesday.

Whether the event served democracy is, well, debatable.

Among those on stage were a number of perennial candidates who, having lost previously bids for lower-level positions, have decided to throw their hats in the ring to be top banana.

Some are single-issue, or at least single-themed, candidates. One argued that if the city encourages business to thrive, all our revenue woes will be over, while another wants to stop corporations from controlling the city. Neither has a plan to make these notions a reality.

A candidate from Vanier is fighting the Salvation Army's 350-bed facility planned for Montreal Road and arguing for more affordable housing, while another, from Bells Corners, is calling on voters to turf the College ward incumbent.

The pièce de résistance was the candidate who demanded to know if a straightforward question about jobs and technology had been planted by Amazon.

There were so many candidates at the debate held by Carleton University's residence association that they only had time to take four questions. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

No business running for mayor

Inviting everyone who's registered to run for mayor to a debate may seem democratic, but the resulting free-for-all fails voters.

With opening and closing statements, this mixed assortment of men — they were all men — answered just four questions in 90 minutes, and superficially at that. It wasn't truly a debate. These things rarely are. Instead, each hopeful spoke for one minute, then had another minute to respond, with no real opportunity for them to challenge each other.

It's understandable that organizers are reluctant to pick and choose candidates to participate. There are no guidelines for this sort of thing. The possibility for a backlash is high. Who gets to decide who the front-runners are?

The problem is, though, that most of the individuals on that stage have no business running for mayor. That's not to say they shouldn't be allowed to run or participate in the campaign. A leader can come from anywhere. But most of these candidates — even the ones with theoretically valid ideas like merging Ottawa and Gatineau – aren't mounting a full-fledged campaign, can't show evidence of widespread or growing support, and haven't demonstrated now they're conceivably suited to be mayor of a G7 capital.

Doucet vs. Watson

So that leaves incumbent Jim Watson and former councillor Clive Doucet. They are clearly the only two running anything that can be described as city-wide campaigns, though Doucet, who registered to run at the 11th hour, has a significantly smaller operation than Watson.

Some have argued that Doucet, who has not always been as careful with his facts as one might like in a mayoral candidate — he insists, for example, that cannabis was legal when he was young when in fact it's been outlawed since 1923— shouldn't be considered a serious contender.

But judging from his signs around town, his army of volunteers and the news events he's staged, it's hard to deny him that label.

The fact that Doucet's platform may not rate as realistic in his critics' eyes is exactly why there should be a debate between him and Watson. A one-on-one test would give Doucet the chance to challenge Watson's record, and Watson the opportunity to argue why his opponent's ideas are wrong-headed.

Watson 'frustrated'

Watson himself said after Tuesday's debate that he was "frustrated" at not being able to respond to what he characterized as a factual error in one of Doucet's criticisms of his own record.

More important, an uncluttered, mano-a-mano clash would give voters a chance to see the two in action, to hear their different voices, and to contrast their styles as well as their substance. That clear signal just can't be delivered through the noise generated by a raft of also-rans.

Watson is being lambasted on social media for skipping the Ecology Ottawa-led debate on Wednesday, and passing for on the NowWhat? debate on gender-based violence and inequality being held next Tuesday.

He had been invited to both back in August, but said recently he had previously scheduled events. He points out he's still the mayor of the city, with all the duties that entails, while other candidates are merely campaigning. It also happens that his stated positions on the subjects of these two debates have recently come under fire.

Watson did make it to last week's debate, held by Carleton's Rideau River Residence Association, where he was once the group's president.

He will also be at the Ottawa Board of Trade's mayoral forum on tourism and business on Monday, but Doucet can't make that one because he's already booked for a panel discussion on lost trees. The board invited Doucet less than two weeks before the event. 

All these event are, frankly, optional by their very nature. The candidates needn't show up, and voters needn't feel compelled to take attendance.

Now, a face-off between the incumbent and his only serious rival — that would be awkward to pass up and well worth watching, a debate that would truly serve democracy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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