Leaders debate needs to be revamped to provide discussion of issues

Lana Payne
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Last weeks leaders debate proved that a woman can really mix things up.

It was as if there were two debates the civilized, respectful one that occurred between NDP Leader Lorraine Michael and her opponents, and the angry, transmit-only exchanges between Premier Danny Williams and Liberal Leader Gerry Reid.

For sure and certain, there is no love lost between Williams and Reid.

Of course, they werent actually debating. They were, instead, arguing over each other. Not much was added to the democratic process as a result; little policy was discussed and, if there was, it was hard to tell or hear. As a result, those important issues such as the decline of rural communities and the fishery never managed to get the attention Reid wanted them too.

The premier did have some of the better lines of the night many of them reminding voters why he is 76 per cent in the polls, why they like him and why he occupies the 8th-floor office.

Pick a negotiator

Perhaps the most stinging exchange came between the premier and Reid on oil royalties and equity shares and the choice Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have in the election.

The people have to decide who they want negotiating their oil agreements. You or me? the premier said.

For Reid, this had to be like having the bottom fall out of your stomach a painful reminder that this wasnt even a job he wanted, but one foisted on him by a party in disarray.

At times, the premiers extreme confidence was brighter than the television lights. You almost felt sorry for Reid at the end forced to contest an election that is a foregone conclusion except for the deck-chair arrangement. Next to the relaxed premier, he seemed nervous and uncomfortable, and his angry retorts often came across as negative rather than impassioned.

Respectful debate

Michael the political neophyte in the group, as she has only been in the House of Assembly for a year engaged in respectful debate with a healthy exchange of points of view, ideas and critiques. If she was nervous, it didnt show.

She proved she could make an effective leader of the Opposition. And in the process, maybe change just a little the tone of debate in the House of Assembly, where chanting and name-calling are, too often, par for the course.

She peppered her opponents with spontaneous questions. She had quick answers and often injected with remarks like, Youve had your turn to speak, Id like mine now. Or, Weve been asked a question and you havent answered it.

In the days following the debate, it was Michael who was the talk around the water cooler and even on a couple of wharves. People who didnt know her were surprised by her performance, her confidence, her refusal to be intimidated by the highly pressured situation that these television debates have become.

Every election year, there is a debate about the debate and whether the format is the most effective way to allow the political leaders to highlight their policies to the electorate.

And in the days following this years debate, the same complaints by citizens and journalists were made. No one seems to like the format, and yet we seem to be stuck with it. If this is determined by the political parties, they really should change it.

CBC political reporter David Cochrane, who was one of the journalists asking questions during Tuesdays debate, summarized the feelings of many when he wrote in an election blog that, Each leader ignored the other and barrelled ahead as if they were wearing earplugs. My personal preference would be for a true debate. Each candidate would get limited, uninterrupted time for argument and rebuttal.

What is clear is it is time to change the way things are done. Democracy would be better served. The political leaders would be better served. After all, they spend so much time preparing for the debate, studying their issue binders, that its a shame they dont get a better opportunity in an hour of televised air-time to get their points across.

Too many people are feeling disenfranchised from the political system. And this debate format doesnt help endear anyone to politics.

The spending scandal has added to the level of cynicism about politics and the people who run for political office. It may even affect voter turnout this time around staying home seems to be the only way many see to voice their discontent.

There is much trust to be rebuilt. MHAs who continue to justify some of the spending blaming it on the lack of rules, common practice or House of Assembly staff are only making matters worse.

Some are innocent

Of course, the premier is right, not every politician is at fault. But enough of them misspent constituency funds to reinforce that too commonly held opinion that the political system lacks morals and values that politicians are just in it for themselves.

Buying perfume and art is not just unacceptable, but speaks to a cult-like sense of entitlement, as if they were royalty and we the mere plebes. Whatever happened to that old-fashioned innate sense of right and wrong?

It is this damage that the premier and all the newly elected MHAs will have to repair. The first steps were taken with Chief Justice Derek Greens report. Only time will tell if the remaining wound can be healed.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. Her column returns Oct. 14.

Organizations: CBC

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page