What happened to nationally televised election debates?

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Thursday night -- and it means the first televised election debate.

OK, be honest. How many immediately thought of Donald Trump versus the rest of the Republicans on Fox News? It's been more hyped, has way more drama, and at least it's on a national network. Yet it's a minor event early in the U.S. election cycle. The debate here is crucial, during an actual campaign, but it'll only be streamed by its sponsor, Maclean's magazine, and go onto various Rogers channels: the CITY stations, the OMNI stations and a "suite" -- adorable term -- of AM radio. I don't know if OLN and Sportsnet will carry it, though CPAC will. What happened to nationally televised debates?

This is what's upsetting about the new election debate format, which took us cleverly and by stealth. I don't believe I even realized its import till I checked to find out how you find it. These debates have ceased to be national events.

How do you even know that you're a country? One way is by having national, repeated moments and we have fairly few: Canada Day, the Grey Cup. Er, er, er -- oh yes, elections. (Another way you know you're a country is by adopting projects that everyone agrees to pitch in on: a railway, a war, a national broadcaster or health care program. Stuff you can't do alone.)

Those national televised debates were often unimpressive -- dull, shallow, blustery. Still, they gathered the country and impressed on it that significant collective decisions now had to be made. Canada Day -- like any birthday or anniversary -- can be a grim ordeal as well but does that mean you cancel it and substitute neighbourhood barbecues? Better to try and make it better.

This is what the new approach definitely doesn't do, though it claims to. It strips off the national component and boutiques the process. The old debates assembled 10 million viewers in English and 4 million in French. These may have a few hundred thousand. It's the decimation of a shared mass experience.

The boutiques running each debate are basically pro-Harper, neoliberal, business-oriented entities. You get your Rogers boutique this week, fronted by their organ, Maclean's. In September comes the Globe and Mail boutique, gently disseminated (like rain) via the paper's website and two(!) YouTube channels. Its editor says it's donned the burden as "Canada's leading destination for business news." Who else are national elections for? The third English debate will be run by The Munk Debates, an effete, tonier version of a suburban book club, funded through his foundation by mining magnate Peter Munk.

These boutique debates are as neoliberal as Harper's tax policies and it's no coincidence. Taxes are another way a society affirms its existence and acts to do those things together that it can't, individually (the railways, wars, universal health care or education). Harper rejects such projects -- OK, he sort of likes wars but not paying for them, or for the soldiers who return from them damaged. So his policy isn't to collect taxes and enact large social ventures; it's to cut taxes and, through boutique credits for fitness, home reno etc., enable individual goals. Boutique debates go with boutique tax cuts. It's the neoliberalization of Canada's electoral process. We're all on our own, on our channel or website of personal choice -- like Rogers' old MyTV. Nothing larger or national going on here.

It's consistent with Harper's "wedge" politics, that he aims to destroy any sense of national political events by refusing to participate in the "consortium" debate, the 10+4 million one. The other parties could resist by doing it anyway but now the NDP's Tom Mulcair says he won't go if Harper doesn't. It may seem surprising but less so if you realize how infected all the parties are by neoliberal values: anti-tax, balanced budget, pro-trade deals. It's the new political normal.

I admit I groaned through most TV debates of the past. But I still think elections, like birthdays or Canada Day should be marked and jointly celebrated. Occasionally someone -- usually TVO's Steve Paikin as host -- even redeemed them. I may write him in on my ballot, in solemn memory of public politics.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: European Union 2014 - European Parliament/flickr

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