THUNDER BAY, ONT. - So it has come to this. Again.
For the second election in a row, one of the big three party leaders will be missing in action during a major campaign debate.
Dalton McGuinty snubbed democracy with a telltale display of arrogance in the 2011 election. Now, following in the former premier’s footsteps — or more precisely, his empty chair — Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak will be the nay saying no-show at Monday’s scheduled debate organized by northern municipalities.
Back then, Hudak was scathing in his denunciations of McGuinty for being AWOL. Now, the Tory campaign is making excuses about scheduling difficulties.
But absences aren’t accidents. They are conscious decisions based on strategic calculations.
The suggested motives for a PC boycott? Hudak has written off northern seats. He wants to prop up the faltering campaign of NDP Leader Andrea Horwath by giving her a clear shot at the Liberals’ Kathleen Wynne (Tories benefit in many ridings when New Democrats peel away Liberal votes). And he wants these two rivals to damage each other while he emerges unscathed.
Even if these strategies were borne out, they are beyond the pale. In a democracy, there is no justification — strategic or scheduling — for refusing to interact with one’s political opponents and, more importantly, voters.
It’s not so much a courtesy to their fellow politicians as an obligation to us, their fellow people. You can’t tell voters they are paramount, then treat them as second-class citizens unworthy of serious dialogue.
What unforgettably fluffy photo-ops could possibly have kept Hudak away? Spare us the phoney war of pretend campaigning, most of which is so choreographed and scripted as to be almost meaningless. Leaders’ tours largely consist of hobnobbing with supporters at staged events, with controlled crowds in confined settings disconnected from the (largely indifferent) electorate.
We could learn from Quebec, where two TV debates are standard. Our federal elections boast one TV debate in each official language (it’s better in translation). U.S. presidential candidates debated three times in 2012 (plus a vice-presidential debate).
Why should Ontarians, who elect Canada’s second-biggest government, be treated as second-class citizens by their own politicians? Queen’s Park deals directly with the vital health, education and energy sectors that affect 40 per cent of Canada’s population and economy.
Give the NDP’s Andrea Horwath credit for suggesting five televised debates in this election. Her only mistake was waiting until the campaign’s start to make her belated demand.
Former prime minister Kim Campbell once said, cynically and incorrectly, that election campaigns are no place to discuss policy. Campaigns matter — and so do debates.
But elections are no place to debate the question of debates. As Hudak’s surprise boycott has shown, each camp always has its own cynical calculations to make at election time. That’s why debate arrangements must be made ahead of time, before campaign managers can hijack the democratic process.
Just as politicians can’t be counted on to do the right thing, neither can TV executives be relied upon to serve voters. They come together every few years to form an ad hoc network “consortium” that works out the logistics — looking out for their own vested interests, not voter interests. They are governed by their own commercial and competitive considerations, not the pursuit of good governance for our province.
Why should unaccountable campaign managers and network executives be allowed to shortchange Ontarians with perennial predictability?
Other civic-minded organizations — universities and think tanks, for example — should lead the way by establishing permanent structures to host TV-friendly, web-accessible debates that can be picked up by networks big and small. If they build it, the cameras will come.
It’s too late for this election. But now is the time to start setting clear criteria and a transparent process to fill the void for voters — well ahead of the next election.
Debates are far too important to be left in the hands of candidates who are no-shows, or networks that treat democracy’s biggest show like show business.