This year’s election campaign featured three leaders’ debates in total, two French and one English. While the French debates had leaders over exaggerating their efforts on behalf of French Canadians, the English debate format took an interesting turn by putting unaccountable journalists at centre stage, literally.
For years now the mainstream media has usurped an increasing volume of media and broadcasting space while its quality of output has significantly declined. Adding to this polarized and overregulated media culture, this year’s English debate entirely diverted attention from leaders and their platforms in favour of glorifying the spotlight role of prominent journalists.
Expectations were low for this debate at the outset – but nobody predicted the catastrophe it ultimately became. What it became was a press gallery style hounding of the leaders instead of having them carry their own discussion of ideas for the future of this country. In introducing the format of the debate, moderator Shachi Kurl laughably misspoke, saying that “four undecided journalists, rather four undecided voters and journalists” would be posing questions to the leaders over the course of the evening. Though the misstep was quite insignificant, it did highlight the controversial involvement of regular political commentators in a debate that is meant to address the concerns of ordinary Canadians, not journalists who likely have developed their own biases.
It’s important to acknowledge the fundamental role of a moderator in the leaders’ debates, but at the same time, that role is very limited and must prohibit a moderator from challenging the contestants’ views and from interjecting and redirecting the discussion. Unfortunately, during the few instances where leaders were allowed to engage in open debate, the moderator and journalists continued to make challenges into the discussion, redirecting its flow and taking the focus away from the platforms.
Especially confusing for listeners were the repeated interruptions by the moderator to divide singular questions for each leader, often entirely unrelated, and then refusing to allow further discussion. By simply adopting a question-and-answer format, the event almost purposefully removed any opportunity for true back and forth debate among the leaders that would show clear contrasts for observers to consider. Instead, this rigid and inflexible configuration was better suited for journalists looking to provoke headlines from the ordeal.
Although it is clear that the moderator and journalists played an embellished role in the debate, the leaders also shoulder some of the blame for this. With virtually no massive platform promises from any leader, paired with an almost nonexistent election narrative, voters will go to the polls with very little insight into what they are actually voting on. Here, the onus is ultimately on the leaders for being unable to transcend a vision for the future, subjecting the news media to the task of constructing a shallow narrative for the entire process.
For the Conservatives, Erin O’Toole has spent the better part of the last year modernizing his party’s social impression on Canadians while also trying to bolster economic and environmental proposals. While there was significant excitement with the release of “Canada’s Recovery Plan”, the Conservative platform may not attain a news trajectory spanning the entirety of the election campaign, allowing other parties to take up more media volume and thus more of Canadians’ attention.
In contrast, Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats have managed to run a relatively steady campaign, hovering around their traditional peak in the polls at around 20% nationally, but seemingly falling short on any specific regional inroads. The NDP is also largely staking this campaign on their leader’s individual personality and his connection to the electorate, and while that may be justified by his high favourability, the party’s lack of innovation in their platform may deter voters looking to elect a viable Prime Minister.
Seeking a third term as Prime Minister, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has naturally been on the defensive for the entirety of the campaign, and while his track record is nothing to write home about, the other parties present very little to sway voters away from an embattled Liberal government. Canada’s political culture is one that is naturally resistant to change but one that can quickly form a consensus among swathes of swing voters in order to ensure that regardless of who is in power, the Canadian government remains relatively stable.
With the campaign now winding down, it is still unclear whether or not this is a ‘change election’, and the reason for that is at least in part the embellished role that the news media has taken in dictating political narratives. At the end of the day, it is foundational to our democracy that the news media maintains a low profile in the direct electoral process, but instead is able to factually and adequately report on the issues of the day. At the same time, our political leaders must do a better job at generating and presenting policies that are more compatible with the rapidly changing Canadian electorate.