New Rules for Political Debates

Reporting on TV debates, those campaign set pieces, draws heavily from the sports pages. Pundits speculate about the potential for a "knockout punch," even though it rarely happens.

New Rules for Political Debates

Reporting on TV debates, those campaign set pieces, draws heavily from the sports pages. Pundits speculate about the potential for a "knockout punch," even though it rarely happens. As the front-runner, Paul MARTIN might want to "rag the puck," weaving around his adversaries while avoiding a decisive confrontation that might cost him his lead. On the other hand, the second-place guy, Stephen HARPER, might "swing for the fence," risking a big gesture to close the gap. "It's political reporters taking the opportunity to be sports reporters," scoffs Gordon Ashworth, a Toronto communications consultant and former Liberal strategist, who helped prepare both Jean CHRÉTIEN and Pierre TRUDEAU for debates. The upshot, he says, is that the televised clashes are almost always overhyped.

Maybe so, but it's hard to resist yet another sports analogy for changes that could make this week's debates particularly interesting. Just as the NHL imposed new rules this season to make pro hockey watchable again, the networks have overhauled the way the four federal leaders will square off. The debates in last year's election were widely criticized for allowing too many frustrating interruptions, with leaders speaking over leaders - sort of like clutch-and-grab hockey where players rarely get enough open ice to complete a play. Organizers have tried to fix that problem: in this campaign's debates, when one leader is answering a question, the microphones of the other three will be switched off. Rebuttals and give-and-take will, at least in theory, be more orderly.

And the source of the questions could also force a shift in tone. Instead of being quizzed by a panel of journalists, the politicians will take queries from ordinary Canadians, videotaped in advance. Dodging a question from a media personality is one thing; failing to respectfully address one from an average citizen whose vote you are trying to win would be quite another. As well, the addition of a second set of debates could also change the dynamic, eliminating the winner-take-all tension. This week's encounters, in French on Dec. 15 and English on Dec. 16, will be followed by rematches, to be held on Jan. 9 and Jan. 10. That could mean all of the party leaders will hold their real zingers in reserve.

Add it all up, and the outlook for this week is shockingly civilized. A dead-mike policy to discourage pointless din. A format that compels leaders to address themselves to individual voters. And the knowledge that there will be a second chance to get tougher, if need be, after the holidays. What's more, the campaign has gotten off to an unexpectedly issue-oriented start.

Conventional wisdom held that this election would be dominated by opposition attacks on Paul Martin's Liberals as proven corrupt by the sponsorship scandal, countered by Liberal vilification of Stephen Harper's Conservatives as extreme right-wingers. Instead, the Tory leader rolled out a series of early policy announcements - from slashing the goods and services tax by two percentage points, to giving parents of small children $1,200 a year. The Liberals came back with some ideas of their own, like more money for daycare and a ban on handguns. "We've changed channels quickly from corruption to issues," says Nik Nanos, president of the polling firm SES Research. "If it stays that way, this is no longer a referendum on a tired government."

It's a high-risk approach from the Conservatives. Every day that they turn the campaign into a contest of ideas is a day that it is not about the sponsorship affair. Polls in the first two weeks of the campaign showed the Liberal lead growing, suggesting Harper's policy emphasis was not panning out. That might push him to be more aggressive on the corruption theme in the debates, says Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group, the firm conducting polls for Maclean's during the campaign. But Lyle also says voters already know Harper is smart and capable on his feet. As a result, they will be looking for something more from him than mere point-scoring.

"People watching will not be willing to accept just a favourable performance by Stephen Harper," Lyle says. "He has to come across at a different level, an emotional level." The Conservative leader's instincts, however, don't lead him to seize the moment and let his emotions show - as he demonstrated on the first day of the campaign with his robotically restrained response to a question about whether he loved Canada.

The experience of last year's campaign shows how just holding his own - even winning outright - probably won't be enough for Harper. Most day-after analysis of the English-language debate in 2004 declared him the victor. But that apparent score in one of the election's big tests didn't seem to win him any lasting advantage, as Conservative support went on to be eroded in Ontario by hard-hitting Martin speeches and Liberal advertisements in the campaign's late stages. The lesson: Harper needs to persuade Canadians east of Manitoba to re-evaluate him on some more lasting level. "If Harper is in trouble going into the debates, particularly in Ontario," says Bill Tieleman, a Vancouver communications consultant and former NDP strategist, "my advice to him is that he needs to take chances."

Nobody else is likely to. Riding an updraft in the polls through the campaign's first phase, Martin might be more than willing to play to a draw. Gilles DUCEPPE is also in cautious, front-runner mode, his Bloc Québécois dominating Quebec. For his part, NDP Leader Jack LAYTON was widely viewed as off-puttingly pushy in last year's debates. This time, he might look for a moment to define himself as above the fray - Gordon Wilson did just that and revived his B.C. Liberals in a memorable outing in the province's 1991 campaign debate - without risking another abrasive performance.

That leaves Harper. Conservative numbers could well be low enough on the eve of the debates to tempt him to gamble. The new format, though, might not lend itself to any sort of aggressive tack. And even if he is looking at discouraging polling numbers, Harper might decide to wait until after Christmas to throw caution to the wind. With a new format to contend with, party strategists are even less confident than usual about predicting the debates' outcomes. As the sports writers say, that's why they play the games.

Maclean's December 19, 2005