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What if Canada Had Federal Election Debates That Weren’t Ass?

Canadian federal leaders' debates are bad. The Tories are giving us an opportunity to fix that, even if that wasn't their plan.

Just look at him, looking somewhat upward in hope or something. A rousing debate would be just the thing to wipe that... expression off his face. Photo via Flickr user Matt Jiggins

Canadian federal leaders' debates are bad.

In recent memory they've produced a grand total of three memorable exchanges: a baby boomer stumbling through the phrase "Hashtag Fail" in the still-early days of Twitter; a devastating back-pocket line about Parliamentary attendance (yes, Parliamentary attendance); and, probably the most genuinely consequential, 1984's dadbod super-burn of "You had an option, Sir."

Slim pickings by any measure.

Federal debates in Canada are difficult to get excited about. They feature a less streamlined antagonism than American debates, where personality and gravitas are actually relevant considerations in assessing a potential President. They lack the wry semantic prowess of British exchanges, honed in decades-long debate club rivalries between schools they name J-Crew pants after. Diasporic communities within Canada tune into debates of often profound consequence or passion. We get Zach Paikin's dad.

It's not just that our federal debates (and most provincial debates; municipal debates are entirely different beasts) lack excitement, but more importantly they lack impact. An Ipsos poll conducted immediately following the 2011 English-language leader's debate found that the discussion had led only 12 percent of viewers to change their vote, and most iterations are distinguishable from one another only by who the participants are—a timeless haze of boxy greyness and controlled arm motions.

For decades, Canada's debates have been organized by a consortium of television broadcasters in consultation with party operatives, a group so hopped up on StatusQuo™ they can barely stand themselves. The same could be expected in this latest election cycle: Prosecutor Mulcair asking pointed questions most are indifferent about the answer to, Prime Minister Dad subliminally working the Economic Action Plan jingle into each of his answers, Justin Trudeau sheepishly glowing red in between them.

But, somewhat surprisingly, Stephen Harper's Conservatives made waves Tuesday by refusing the terms proposed by this election's debate cartel, instead committing to as many as five debates produced by groups outside the consortium.

So far, the Conservatives and New Democrats have agreed to participate in two debates, one hosted by French-language outlet TVA and another by Maclean's and Rogers. The NDP has also signed on to a proposal from Up For Debate, a group promising a debate on issues identified by women. The Liberals seem keen to let the dust settle before committing, while Green Party leader Elizabeth May announced that she would "fucking attend any fucking debate that will have me." (Okay, that's not a real quote. Sorry, Liz.)

The debates will still, in all likelihood, be nationally televised across multiple networks. But the momentary shift in power from broadcasters to parties has a variety of organizations, media outlets, and individual broadcasters shopping proposals for the parties to accept, with the five or fewer potential prime ministers to attend likely becoming the de facto "official" debates of this election cycle.

This could—theoretically—make for a significantly wider range of formats and mechanisms for leaders to make their case. In previous years, the legacy consortium's attempts to grasp for freshness were largely limited to folding stale social media questions into a format that is still essentially a radio debate happening to be filmed for TV.

Format innovations aren't a given, though. StatusQuo™ is a helluva drug, and parties are likely to continue to prefer proposals that keep leaders and their debate teams on familiar ground, as well as those that invite as few other leaders as possible.

At the very least, the consortium-free experiment should triple the number of English-language debates to three and double the French-language number to two (2011 boasted only a single debate in each language, with the French-language contest having to be hastily rescheduled so as not to coincide with a Habs/Bruins playoff game).

Presuming the Conservatives agree to all five (they have no particular incentive to do so), this would make for roughly one leader's debate per week over the 36-day campaign.

This would be good. Debates are at their most constructive when they're more miniseries than pay-per-view, forcing candidates to show growth or regression, stretch temperament, counter their opponent with not just a good line today but a stronger argument next week.

Single debates confine candidates and debate watchers to the isolative environment of a high-profile boxing match, each warrior emerging from their cavernous training gauntlet for The Big Fight, spending 90 minutes internalizing a handler's instruction to jab, gamble, and avoid the "The Knockout Blow," and immediately shifting their sights to the infinitely more important morning press conference, where the dynamics of the contest itself are afforded only passing relevance.

This model of debate approximates leadership and policy skills that don't exist elsewhere in the process of governing—it's the equivalent of choosing between cellphone plans based on the font in which they're advertised.

More debates, and specifically more variety and experimentation in their proposed formats, could allow for a better sense of the strength of the leaders, their party and their policies.

Some debates should allow candidates to bring opening and closing presentations, rich with visual information and political storytelling. Others should feature teams of three debaters—the party leader and two prominent candidates of his or her choosing—as a more diverse representation of party values. Debates should eschew auditoriums in Ottawa and Montreal for rural environments, aboriginal communities, and contested ridings.

More broadly, the production design of these new debates should aim to enhance their social accessibility—the actual value they offer people, and the number of people to whom they offer it—rather than just focusing on digital functionality ("OMG what if candidates could tweet at each other during the debate!"). Part of the promise of multiple debates in multiple formats lies in not pretending everyone engages with politics in the same way, with the same tone, and on the same issues. That's where pervasive mediocrity comes from.

The effect is not to turn debates into game shows, or Ted Talks, or online popularity contests, but rather to ground political exchange in a contemporary cultural aesthetic people find familiar and accessible.

There remains plenty of room—indeed still likely too much room—for more of the kind of serviceable, unassuming debates we're used to. Even small breaks in the entrenched orthodoxies of what Leaders Debates can be and communicate could have a big impact in refreshing the medium for a post-radio era.

But don't count on it. The broadcast establishment may have lost their influence on debate production, but the political establishment—perhaps even more hostile to situations they don't feel in control of—has maintained and even increased theirs.

StatusQuo™ is a helluva drug.

Follow Seb FoxAllen on Twitter.