Sarah Boesveld, National Post · Apr. 27, 2011 | Last Updated: Apr. 27, 2011 8:01 AM ET
People call them all-candidates’ debates for a reason, but some believe the time-honoured face-offs between local candidates have lost a bit of their “all” in this election, as contender after contender opts out.
Last week, the Liberal incumbent in Barrie, Ont., ditched a debate hosted at Grace United Church because he objected to the moderator, a local political science professor. In Ottawa-South, Liberal incumbent David McGuinty was left to duke it out with Green party newbie Mick Kitor and the 19-year-old representative from the Pirate Party of Canada because the Tory and NDP candidates decided not to participate. In Alberta’s Edmonton-Spruce Grove riding, only two contenders–Conservative incumbent Rona Ambrose and Liberal candidate Chris Austin — took to the podiums, as the NDP and Green party candidates’ chairs stood empty. And in another case last week, Pickering-Scarborough East Conservative candidate Corneliu Chisu reportedly told organizers of a high school debate that he couldn’t participate because the national war room advised against it.
A Tory spokesperson said the party did not stop Mr. Chisu from participating but supported his decision to spend time on the trail instead.
“The national war room’s advice to Conservative candidates is to do what’s best for their local campaigns,” said Conservative campaign spokesperson Chris Day. Candidates often get more requests than they can fulfill, he said, and there are other ways they can address constituents in this election.
“Many of our candidates feel their time is better spent door-knocking or doing other things [rather] than attending debate after debate. Some find debates to be packed with partisans who’ve already made up their minds on how to vote.”
And while some debate no-shows merely rate a brief mention in local news reports, others have been used as ammunition against other parties.
The Liberal war room sent the media a list of seven Conservative MP incumbents and hopefuls who ditched debates, just 2 weeks into the campaign. The NDP candidate in Nunavut blamed the CBC for caving in to pressure from the Conservatives when it cancelled the radio broadcast of an all-candidates’ forum that Tory incumbent Leona Aglukkaq was not attending.
The Liberal party has noticed fewer of its opponents showing up to duke it out during local exchanges, said party spokesperson Michael O’Shaughnessy. Mr. Day from the Conservative camp said his party has noticed fewer debates altogether, but no big changes in attendance records. The NDP says more media attention has been paid to no-shows at all-candidates debates because of the Conservatives’ perceived penchant for controlling candidate activities from their central war room. The New Democrats say that while their candidates are advised to attend as many debates as possible, the final word belongs to the campaign.
What is not clear is whether this election is different from any other with regard to debate attendance.
With social media and online interactions taking centre stage in this election, it is tempting to brush off all-candidates’ debates as a relic of elections past. But there are merits to debating before a group of voters, even if the core intention is just to bring out your supporters, said David Smith, senior policy fellow at the University of Regina’s Johnson-Shoyama graduate school of public policy.
“I would think that is probably not good politics and theoretically not that desirable” to cancel a debate appearance, he said, even for candidates in apparently safe seats.
At the end of the day, he said, some voters still depend on all-candidates’ debates to get a good sense of where the contenders stand, Mr. Smith said.
“I think there is a real problem here if [ditching debates] becomes the characteristic of a political campaign, because politics, after all, is about vote seeking.”