rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

How do we get real political debate this federal election?

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

It's six months from a federal election and people are worried whether the Green Party will be allowed to participate in televised debates. Given the flawed way we elect politicians I think it is a fair concern, but I would rather repair the flaw than worry about leveling a broken playing field.

I am less worried about who participates in televised debates than that we have televised debates at all. I am worried that anyone thinks the ability to dodge questions and deliver focus-grouped talking points is a useful measure of a leader.

If you have watched Question Period in the last few years than you have witnessed the farce that TV has made of political discourse. No questions are answered in Question Period. It is a talking points rehearsal. A struggle for airtime.

We've learned to consume our politics through the television, and television doesn't win audiences with substance, it wins them with entertainment. And politicians have adjusted accordingly.

Every party leader walks into the debates with a bag of one-liners they hope to land on the news. They aren't there to match wits or prove a point or change people's minds. They're competing to deliver the burn that will make the best headlines.

Headlines that for days and days will proclaim who won or didn't win, or who might actually have secretly won even though it seemed like they lost.

What monster have we created when who 'won' a televised debate is a topic of conversation? HealthcCare should be a conversation. Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women should be a conversation. The direction of the economy. Military spending. Climate change. These are important conversations. Who 'won' a game of make believe should not factor into who leads our country.

And we should be worried that staring silently at a screen is considered a form of political participation.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that the medium is the message. That we should concern ourselves not with the content distributed, but with the method of distributing it. So it is not the honesty of a politician's smile, or the bite of their professionally written dialogue, but the way in which we consume them. And we consume our politics by staring in silence at a glowing box.

When television was widely adopted it was technically superior to what came before. It was both audio and visual and it was exciting to see and hear political leaders. To assess them both physically and aurally.

But television flows in a single direction. In front of it we are passive observers. People on TV tell us not what we need to know, but what they want us to hear. And watching televised debates makes you an informed voter like watching the Oscars makes you an insightful movie critic.

Televised debates between leaders are rigorously formatted. They begin and end on time. They are subject to a long list of rules drafted by the participants' staffers.

But nothing in politics begins or ends on time. Decisions do not come when expected or end when planned. Leadership, to be Canadian about it, is paddling a canoe down an endlessly flowing river. There are hazards hidden below the water and beyond the horizon that no one can see. There is no rehearsal for what might come. There is no chance to pause or prepare or rehearse. You are caught in the flow and judged by how you navigate.

We need leaders who can make decisions on the fly. Who can excel in dynamic, changing environments. And we pick those leaders by how they perform on a stage. Static and scripted and coached by professional communicators.

We are applying an American Idol rubric to select our next Prime Minister. We are valuing performance over substance. And we end up electing exactly the people our flawed approach deserves.

We need to expand beyond our traditional 'who gets to participate!?' whingeing and ask some more productive questions. How can we force politicians to compete more honestly for our votes? Are there more accurate and effective hoops can we force them to jump through?

As a reader I fantasize about op-eds written by party leaders. Op-eds every day for the entire election. I'm sure for a while they'd be nothing but talking points, but how long could that work before it crossed into the absurd? And what happens when the other leaders begin to respond? To disassemble? To excoriate?

We could force them into uncomfortable positions. Make Harper submit first and let the other leaders respond on the same page. Mulcair goes first the next day, Trudeau the one after. And on and on until the ballots are cast. A running dialogue for all to see.

If we demand enough interaction we might force real debate. If we remove the incentive to land a quote in the news cycle we might get more substance and less on entertainment. And with improved debate we might get more substantive leaders.


Doug has been politically active since he was the youngest candidate in Canada's 2000 federal election. He lost badly, and then spent most of his 20s paying tuition to study politics. He worked for a while as a Liberal staffer in Ontario, but now he drives a van for a catering company and suspects that sitting in Toronto's endless traffic might be the purest experience of political policy making. He tweets hopes, fears, and pictures of himself @dphowat.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.