As It Happens

Federal leaders' debate was 'an awesome fail' of flash over substance, says strategist

After Monday night's federal leaders' debate featuring six candidates and five moderators, all crammed into two hours, veteran journalist turned Ottawa strategist Elly Alboim tells us why the whole thing was an "awesome fail."

Party supporters watch for the zingers, but most voters tune in looking to be informed, says Elly Alboim

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, right, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau gesture to each other as they both respond during the federal leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on Monday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
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Canada's federal party leaders sparred in Monday night's English-language debate, but it remains to be seen whether it had an impact on how people will cast their votes.

However, it didn't take long for people to weigh in on the debate itself — and much of the feedback was less than glowing.

Elly Alboim pilloried the debate on Twitter, calling it "an awesome fail."

Alboim is an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University, head of strategic communications at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, and a former parliamentary bureau chief for the CBC.

He told As It Happens host Carol Off that it could have been far more useful and informative to viewers and voters if the media consortium that was responsible for organizing the debate had prioritized public service over entertainment value.

Here is part of their conversation.

In the segment of the debate that may have featured the best one-liners, the leaders go on the offensive - and defend - plans on climate change. 3:47

Elly, do you think people turned [the debate] off?

Oh I have no idea, Carol. But it's the worst of what these debates can be.

You called it "an awesome fail" and you said that the night was far from the public service it should have been.

Yep. Debates are a public service. People have the right to listen to their leaders tell them what kind of leaders they'll be, what their vision for the country is. They have the right to listen to that at some length so it's coherent, and lay out the fact base that the leaders want to lay out.

The problem is that we've entered into a situation where the TV networks and the consortium kind of decide on the pacing of this thing, and how many, you know, pounds of stuff they want to put into a small bag.

And all of a sudden it becomes a TV show, and everything else is incidental except the entertainment value and the pace of it.

Of course people watched and some people I spoke with said they thought it was chaotic and incoherent much of the time. But they watched every minute of it because they're waiting for the zingers, aren't they?

That's not my feeling. The research doesn't show that. It's the partisans who are waiting for the zingers. You know, the people who see bullfighting as a blood sport.

But most people are there because they want information. They're trying to understand what the leaders are promising, what's on offer. A lot of them are undecided or uncommitted. And they genuinely are trying to find out how to inform their vote.

I think you would have noticed that the ordinary Canadians were actually asked questions during the debate, all asked substantive questions without any hidden agendas, without any zingers in them. They simply wanted information. That's why people go to these things. And to give them a circus really doesn't fulfil the reason they're there.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh before the federal leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Well how would you have done it differently? I mean, there are six party leaders.... It's already a recipe for a confusing and talk-over kind of a session, is it not?

No. Why would it be? I mean it depends on what your objective is. If your objective is to promote information transfer and have leaders speak to the electorate, then you give them specific periods of time to address specific questions without the ability of others to intervene.

You cut off the mics of everybody else except the one talking, you discipline the crosstalk, and you open up the format so people can have more than 30 seconds to respond.

I cheerfully concede that will not be as entertaining to watch. It won't be a hockey game. It won't be a boxing match. But it may actually provide viewers and voters with information they want. Remember, this is about them. It's not about the journalists and it's not about the networks.

Can you point to a debate in the past that you can ... was very successful, that did exactly what you're saying should be done at a debate?

I think [of] the 1984 debate — that ironically David Johnson moderated and he was the head of the debate commission. Now, there's only three candidates there, but they got a lot more time to speak and they still got some interactivity when [Conservative Leader Brian] Mulroney you know famously attacked [Liberal Leader John] Turner.

Brian Mulroney and John Turner cross swords in a pivotal debate during the 1984 election campaign. 3:58

Do you think that last night's debate made any impact on how people might vote this year?

We'll know in 48 hours or 72 hours. Because it takes time for people to absorb what media say about it.… And remember, this is Thanksgiving weekend.

So all over the country, people are going to sit down at kitchen tables or dining room tables and they're going to talk about the election and they're going to try to influence each other. So I don't think we'll really know till Tuesday probably whether anything has happened or not.

We may hear even more interesting debate at those Thanksgiving dinners. And you know what, they'll be more civil, and more detailed.

Maybe. People have walked out of Thanksgiving dinners before.

Fair enough.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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