Chris Selley: Leaders’ debate fiasco is Red Bull for cynics

I am rarely accused, least of all by myself, of not being cynical enough about politics. But the record shows that as recently as Aug. 9, I held out some hope that the leaders’ debates during the upcoming federal election campaign could continue in the spirit of innovation and enterprise that began four years ago, when we suddenly had five debates instead of the usual two, organized and moderated by parties other than the usual consortium of broadcasters and their journalists.

I harboured this strange inkling, that something in Canadian politics might actually turn out better than possible, despite very ominous portents. The Liberals created the Leaders’ Debate Commission, led by former governor-general (and two-time federal leaders’ debate moderator) David Johnston, after the last election to fix a problem that was very difficult to identify — 2015 was the high-water mark for debates, after all — and it did nothing but reinvent the wheel.

To host this year’s “official” debates, the commission chose a consortium of media outlets that differed from the old consortium only in that it was much larger: every major print and broadcast news organization in the country jumped in the pool save The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Postmedia’s and Quebecor’s various outlets.

Back in 2015, many, including me, suspected the commission was a ploy to limit debate in the name of improving it — to cement the idea in the public consciousness that there are only two “real debates,” and that no leader would have any obligation to consider other invitations. It seemed to be coming true. But, I foolishly reasoned, there was still nothing standing in the way of more debates. Maclean’s put one on in 2015, and they’re doing so again this year on Sept. 12. The Aurea Foundation also wishes to reprise its foreign policy Munk Debate from 2015. That would be four at least, and I expected the Globe, Postmedia and Quebecor would pitch their own events too.

All the money that went into the Leaders’ Debate Commission might as well have been set on fire

And then, whomp: This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told La Presse he would only participate in the two consortium debates. “There’s not much benefit for us to participate in all these (other) debates,” an unnamed Liberal strategist explained — which is honest, at least. When leaders calculate the risks of debating exceed the potential advantages, they won’t debate. Period. It’s just never a great look.

Luckily, partisans are always at hand to invent honourable reasons for Dear Leader not to attend. In this case they included: if he agrees to Maclean’s, he’ll have to do another one in French; the Munk Debates are a far-right house of horrors that invited Steve Bannon to Toronto; Paul Wells, moderator of the Maclean’s debate, is a Conservative stooge. Etcetera, etcetera. There’s probably no potential debate organizer or moderator whom partisan Liberals wouldn’t demonize to excuse the boss’s absence, and this will only reinforce the pernicious idea that two all-encompassing debates in predictable surroundings is the one true path. Trudeau’s declaration will likely have stopped any other potential organizers — the Globe, which hosted a debate in 2015, or Postmedia — in their tracks.

Sorry, let me back up. I should say there’s probably no potential English-language organizer that partisan Liberals wouldn’t demonize. On Friday, Trudeau confirmed he would attend a French-language debate hosted by TVA. This hilariously blew up the linguistic balance excuse. But more to the point, TVA is the television arm of Pierre Karl Péladeau’s Quebecor empire. That empire includes the province’s most-read newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal, whose incendiary front pages and ethnocultural-nationalist columnists — frequent guests on TVA’s Le Canal Nouvelles (LCN) — have been a main driver of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments that took hold in Quebec over the last 15 years, leading to restrictions on religious civil servants’ attire that Trudeau claims to abhor.

LCN shares with the late, unlamented Sun News the dubious distinction of having a marquee male personality — Richard Martineau and Ezra Levant, respectively — appear on TV wearing a niqab, for comedy’s sake. But I don’t expect we’ll hear many Liberals complaining about that.

Anyway: Worst case scenario achieved, as usual. Well done, all. All the money that went into the Leaders’ Debate Commission might as well have been set on fire. We’ve no right to expect anything particularly novel or groundbreaking from the barely tweaked regime it installed. If Trudeau and Maclean’s stick to their guns we’ll get the novelty of a leaders’ debate that doesn’t feature the prime minister, and of twice as many French-language (i.e., Quebec-specific) debates as English. No one was asking for either, needless to say.

And if all that doesn’t make you cynical, here’s Liberal campaign director of communications Daniel Lauzon, who had the psychedelic gall to use Stephen Harper’s attendance at five debates in 2015 as a justification for Trudeau attending only three in 2019. “The governing party tried to game the system and make sure the fewest number of Canadians engaged in the debates,” he told CBC. “We think that’s wrong.”

Optimism cannot exist in the same political universe as that quote. Abandon all hope. Expect the worst. It’s a policy from which I only briefly deviated, and I can’t say I enjoyed the experience.

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