Motives have been impugned, with many commentators concluding that the Conservatives see a strategic advantage in keeping their colourless incumbent leader out of the stultifying spotlight. Though the theory is nothing more than conjecture, it does have the feel of plausibility.
One need look no further than the leaders’ debate held before the recent Alberta election, in which the apparent frontrunner, Conservative Jim Prentice, was judged to be out-talked by upstart underdog Rachel Notley of the NDP. The incumbent, it seems, often has the most to lose.
Citizens who are engaged enough by the political contest to actually tune into these dreary events should not despair over their demise. It is truly depressing to watch leaders who have rehearsed every line dozens of times before the debate sleepwalk through drone-like answers to hopelessly predictable questions.
Debates have become so controlled they don’t really tell you much about how a leader will perform in real life. Mostly, they show you how telegenic a person can be and whether they are quick on their feet. Consider it the tyranny of the one-liners.
The simple fact is, we don’t need traditional debates any more than we need prime time television. Just as we can stream the programs of our choice, rather than be held captive to the mindless pap generated by the networks, so too can we seek out our own ways to engage in much more meaningful political discourse than witnessing leaders beat on each other for the cameras.
In this new world, the Conservatives may well learn to regret getting what they wished for.
Have they, as some pundits suggested, seized control from the networks? In a very limited way, the Conservatives have indeed succeeded in frustrating the very good and sincere journalists who moderate these debates.
That does not mean, however, that any political party can escape third-party scrutiny. Whether they realize it or not, the Conservatives have effectively issued a challenge to every amateur political aficionado in the country to initiate their own debates – and under their own terms. These discussions – held on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – are unmoderated, bound by no rules and extend no courtesies.
Even if Prime Minister Stephen Harper chooses to stay above the social media fray, as he inevitably will, his avatars will happily step forward to explain the government’s record. Talk about losing control of the message – imagine being at the mercy of self-appointed apologists.
This is going to be interesting. Journalists, activists and special interest groups have more freedom than ever to set their own priorities, choose their own topics and set their own terms. Most importantly, absent the gentlemanly rules of engagement associated with television debates, these ad hoc conveners will decide for themselves how to challenge answers that are too pat, too contrived or just plainly mendacious.
The technology that gave us the Internet has been at best a mixed blessing. It destroyed the business model that financed our news institutions, and that has had troubling implications for the state of the public’s knowledge of current affairs. That is the downside.
There is an upside, as well. Critics call this other dimension the democratization of information. Each of us has become our own editor, making our own choices about what to be concerned about, and even aware of.
Should enough of us choose to be aware of the issues front and centre in the upcoming federal election, the tools of the modern communications age empower us to be more highly engaged, more demanding and less tolerant of manipulation.
Forget the TV debates. Their best-before dates had already passed. Whatever we might have lost by the Conservatives’ withdrawal, we stand to gain several times over in the wild, crazy and uncontrollable online world, in which all of us become self-appointed judges, governed by rules that aren’t open to negotiation with party spin-doctors.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.