Election debates lack real purpose

Why do we have leaders’ debates?

I suspect Ontarians who bothered to watch the last election debate are probably asking the same question – I know I am.

It’s not that there was anything particularly wrong with the evening and kudos to the moderators and party leaders for all doing their best. But what was his purpose?

Theoretically, I suppose it was to inform voters about the different political positions of the parties so that we could compare and contrast them.

However, all I remember hearing was each leader’s intention to spend huge sums of money on every issue in a way that was somehow different from the tons of money promised by their competitor. Did I really talk like that when I was in politics?

In fairness, there were a few points of contrast, like the different party positions on the construction of the 413 freeway. But let’s be honest, examples like these were rare.

Why does this happen?

This is mainly because public policy has become incredibly complex and there are no easy solutions, yet voters have short attention spans. The only way for a party to get noticed is to simplify the issues, frame them as sticker slogans and ditch the nuance.

Otherwise, how could you possibly try to explain your position on something as complex as health care, education, or the economy in minutes when three other people are yelling at you?

Some say leaders’ debates help us “get to know” party leaders as people. Fair enough, but I’m not sure learning who throws the best zingers or who has the smartest lines (often scripted) is an ideal way to judge who should lead the province.

How about we focus on something else?

What if leaders’ debates tried to show us what motivates party leaders? What if their purpose was to reveal a party leader’s deepest values, beliefs and convictions?

Let me share several questions I’ve always wanted to hear asked in a debate.

What do we owe each other?

How far can we go in perfecting the world? Are there public policy issues that cannot be addressed by government?

To what extent do you think people are on the margins of society because of their own bad choices or because society is rigged against them?

Do you believe that there are sacred things in our world that can never be changed – lines that can never be crossed? What are they?

Do you believe big business has too much power?

These are not abstract questions. The answers to each of them have profound implications for everything from fiscal policy to social policy. They determine how governments support the poor and vulnerable, develop programs around the environment and enable the private sector to operate in key areas of our lives.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear every party leader grapple with them?

I understand. Election debates are not philosophy seminars, and many may find my questions outlandish. But tell me, are they more wacky than asking each party leader their biggest political regret or, as they did during the Federal Conservative leadership debate, the last TV show they watched a lot of?

Mine might be more useful.

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