For voters, making choices in elections is getting more difficult as parties restrict access to leaders in public forums. Photo a CNS photo/Patrick Doyle, Reuters

Voters lose when political debate stifled

  • May 19, 2022

Pretty much a primary requirement for all-candidate debates in any election is that a government candidate be there to debate why the government should be re-elected.

There is, of course, always the option of directing questions to an empty chair, but the silent seat hah-hah factor wears off after the first minute and everyone present feels either silly or spiteful.

Desiring to feel neither, the Archdiocese of Toronto charitably opted to cancel the televised candidates’ debate that I was supposed to moderate on May 18 when Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party failed to field a participant for the event, which was organized in partnership with the St. Monica’s Institute and Salt + Light TV.

Why the Tories skipped a chance to speak to two million-plus Catholics in 225 parishes comprising 36 ethnic and linguistic groups, not to mention potential looky-lous who might have peeped in just to see what the papists were up to, is a mystery bordering on the theological.

Mark Brosens, interim director of communications for the archdiocese, says all parties were invited April 13. The Liberals, NDP and Green Party all RSVP’d in good time. By late in the day one week out from show time, however, no peep had been heard from Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative team. The pin had to be pulled.

“No one (from the Conservatives) got back to me,” Brosens said. “There was no response. The hard part is there was a lot of (planning) time put in, and that’s all been lost.”

Brosens stresses he has no reason to believe there was any anti-Catholic animus to the sound of silence from the PCs. Other sources say it likely had more to do with a behind-the-curtains policy within the party to refuse all local candidate forums to avoid so-called “bozo eruption” controversies during a campaign in which the government leads in the polls.

I e-mailed Premier Ford’s deputy chief of staff, Cody Welton, asking if that were true. I’m still waiting in joyful hope for an answer.

Brendan Steven, a former federal Conservative staffer and now executive director of Catholic Conscience, says he’s heard from friends within the provincial government that “they’re just not making candidates available for these kinds of debates at all.”

Steven acknowledges a growing sentiment within political circles generally that candidate forums take time away from door knocking while forcing electoral hopefuls to spend hours in front of audiences that range from opposed to hostile with little willingness to change their minds.

But he considers that short-sighted at best, antithetical to democracy at worst, especially when it comes to community-wide debates such as the now-scrubbed archdiocese. He points, for example, to a 2015 debate sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in which that community’s varying concerns and voices could be added to the mix of political possibilities up for consideration.

It’s an approach at the heart of Catholic Conscience itself, which has prepared non-partisan election primers to help bring the Church’s social teaching into the public square conversation. The aim is not to dominate but to enrich.

“Despite the polarization of our times, these are public forums where people have the chance to encounter representatives from political parties outside of the highly scripted, very controlled context of press conference announcements, which are too often the content of campaigns,” Steven says.

“At the end of the day, these parties are coming to us as citizens and they’re asking us for the privilege of allowing them to govern us. And it is fundamentally a privilege. It comes along with a bit of tough grilling from time to time. It should not be taken for granted no matter how high you are in the polls,” he adds.

Employing explicitly Catholic language, Steven says all-candidate forums should be seen as opportunities for “discernment” by both political parties and the voting public. Former provincial Liberal cabinet minister John Milloy agrees they can be, but adds voters themselves need to reflect on their own role in encouraging political parties to treat democratic politics as an adult version of hide and seek.

“When you start criticizing the political system, you’ve got to look in the mirror pretty quickly because the fact is that we don’t demand serious discussion,” Milloy says. “The public doesn’t want to hear it. They want to hear ‘Build a Wall.’ ”

The public, Milloy believes, enjoys the theatrical “exaggeration of contrast” typified by politicians who thunder that they have all the right solutions and their opponents are worse than know-nothings.

“The public likes things simple. The public likes to believe that Justin Trudeau has a file on his desk marked ‘boil water advisories’ (for First Nations territories) and all he has to do is sign it and it will all be fixed. I like to point out to anyone who will listen that whoever wins (an election) has the exact same budget, the exact same public service and the exact same levers of power,” he says.

That’s an argument, he emphasizes, for treating the political process with realism, not an excuse for disengaging democratically by ducking public engagements such as candidate forums. Mindful of his own partisan pedigree, Milloy says the explanation that the Progressive Conservatives ducked the archdiocesan forum out of tactical pragmatism is in keeping with the party’s track record. He adds it’s part of a broader and deeper problem identified several years ago by journalist Susan Delacourt that political parties have ceased being crucibles for ideas and have become mere marketing machines.

“It’s all about how can we slice and dice the electorate to put together the coalition that’s going to get us across the finish line with a majority or at least a strong minority. It’s ‘we don’t care about the views or opinions of anyone else, it’s just about the slicing and dicing,’ ” Milloy says.

For Brosens, losing the chance to counter such thinking from a Catholic social teaching perspective is the biggest disappointment of the May 18 televised debate being cancelled. Because Catholics come in all political stripes, and because the archdiocese itself is intrinsically non-partisan, it was a chance for all parties to make their cases to a broad potential audience in an atmosphere of charity.

Indeed, one of the questions Catholic Conscience’s Steven was poised to pose in a video clip to all candidates was: “Could you name something in the other parties’ platforms that you admire or align with or agree with?”

“That’s the promise of democracy,” Brosens says. “You might show up with the idea in mind of voting for a particular party or candidate but then you hear something that will lead you to vote differently. We’re living in a very hostile, unforgiving time in this country, and it’s something we need to step back from.”

Alas, for that to happen, all parties, particularly the governing party, have to step up first.

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