Saturday, March 26, 2016

On open debates

As promised here, I'll take a closer look at Saskatchewan's leaders' debate and what it may mean for the rest of the campaign.

Most criticism of the debate that I've seen so far has focused on two factors.

First, there's the combination of format and moderation: in particular, "open" debate period regularly led to little more than Brad Wall and Cam Broten speaking over each other.

And second, there's the fact the debate was limited to Wall and Broten rather than including additional leaders. In that respect, the conventional wisdom that the opposition party should generally prefer less leaders in the debate may not have applied here, as one of the most important questions in the broader election is that of whether the Saskatchewan Party's past governing coalition might start to break apart in a number of directions.

Those points of concern are both valid to at least some extent. And indeed they may have reinforced each other: while an open period may make sense when there's genuine doubt as to which of multiple leaders might want to speak, a more controlled back-and-forth probably would have made sense with only two leaders participating.

That said, the more noteworthy problem looks to have been based on the lack of more opportunities for direct interaction between party leaders - leaving them to try to use extremely limited time periods in the single debate to repeat a tiny number of talking points, rather than responding fully even to questions (let alone challenges from each other).

In some cases, the leaders went so far as to omit platform points which directly responded to questions. Wall was asked about having seniors staying in their homes, and didn't mention the property tax deferral plank which represents one of his party's largest platform promises. And when Broten was asked a question combining affordability and wages, his response focusing on the former left out any discussion about the NDP's plans to raise the minimum wage and promote a living wage.

In that context, the lack of depth of discussion on a lot of points and the perceived urgency in piping up at every opportunity shouldn't come as much surprise. And it's hard to see how much could have been fixed within the time allotted for the debate without cutting back into an already-limited number of topics discussed.

I'd thus think the biggest takeaway is that more debate - in time and number - might be needed to ensure that leaders have both the opportunity and the perceived obligation to demonstrate depth of thought and understanding, rather than simply trying to cover their planned soundbites.

See also Head Tale, Murray Mandryk and CBC's political panel with their views on the debate.


  1. I think the criticism of Bill Boyd and his land purchases is getting more traction than the Sask Party thought it would. That said, I'm not sure it will result in flipping any seats.

    1. I'm not sure it will on its own either. But I do see it contributing to somewhat less of a free pass than Wall and his party have received in the past - which may have significant impacts both in this election's seat count, and in public perceptions following the vote.