The180·The 180

There is no debate: formal political debates are a waste of time

Conservative Party leadership candidate Lisa Raitt called opponent Kevin O'Leary a chicken, after he skipped a debate in Edmonton. But UBC's David Moscrop says the question we should be asking is, 'What's the use of a political debate in the first place?'
Deepak Obhrai, Michael Chong, Kevin O'Leary and Andrew Scheer participate in a Conservative Party leadership debate at the Manning Centre conference, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Like him or love him, Kevin O'Leary made a "smart political move" when he opted out of a recent Conservative party leadership debate in Edmonton.

It seems counter-democratic doesn't it? Debates are a consistent feature at every level of politics here in Canada.

But according to David Moscrop, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, if you think critically about how any leadership debate plays out - they are of little benefit to the candidates or the voters.
David Moscrop, PhD candidate at UBC, argues leadership debates as we know them are lacking in substance. (CBC)

"Real debates serve to bring issues to the forefront, to clarify them, to educate people about where candidates, or the folks debating, stand on the issue...but that's not what leadership debates tend to do," says Moscrop, adding that it is rare for the debate moderator to press the candidates on the issues.

Instead, Moscrop argues society has come to care more about debate as spectacle and less about debate as a venue for discussion and understanding.

We pay way too much attention to the horse-race, to the gaffes, to the zingers, to the polls, and far less to the deep nuanced substance of the issues we should be discussing.- David Moscrop

As a result, Moscrop says, debates help with name recognition, and in his view a high profile candidate like O'Leary didn't have much to gain.

"Everybody knows who he is. The more he talks, the worse he sounds and he is a target every time he stands up in front of the candidates."

As for the notion that debates can create game-changing moments in elections, Moscrop says there's little evidence to support the idea and he says often those moments stand out because they are simply the most accessible moments.

There is very rarely a single event that has a huge impact. We just want to think it does because that's the story we tell ourselves.- David Moscrop

Of course, Moscrop says, the media could do a better job in structuring leadership debates.

"I do think there's a way to salvage them, but candidates and parties...may not have an interest in that because having a substantive issues-based debate, trying to do Lincoln-Douglas, is really tough. It's difficult and it exposes candidates and their flaws, their shortcomings and the limits of their ideas. And nobody wants to see that when they're running for office because it makes them look like an idiot."


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