News / Ottawa

Why are Conservatives skipping some all-candidates debates?

Missing an all-candidates debate is a risk management strategy, experts say

Conservative candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters at the mayor's office in late August.

Michael Woods/Metro

Conservative candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks to reporters at the mayor's office in late August.

The Conservative party's no-show to Monday night's federal election debate at City Hall was hardly the first time the Tories missed an all-candidates meeting.

Many Conservative candidates have attended all-candidates meetings to be grilled by voters and face off against their opponents. Ottawa-area candidates alone have attended "dozens," Carleton Tory candidate Pierre Poilievre said last week.

However, in Ottawa, Tories also have skipped such meetings more often than other candidates. Survey the country and you'll find more stories about Tory absences from such debates than from other parties.

A Conservative party spokeswoman said there’s no party strategy on local debate attendance. Spokeswoman Meagan Murdoch also emailed a list of several Liberal and NDP candidates who missed all-candidates meetings or debates, including NDP candidate Olivia Chow skipping a Sept. 14 debate in her riding.

In August the Toronto Star reported, citing a Conservative insider, that Tory candidates have been advised to avoid all-candidates’ meetings during the campaign.

Organizers of all-candidates debates sometimes don’t take kindly to being snubbed. In Orléans, the National Association of Federal Retirees left an empty chair on the stage to represent Conservative incumbent Royal Galipeau when he did not attend.

In Winnipeg South Centre, Conservative incumbent Joyce Bateman skipped a debate last week and was replaced by a rubber chicken.

But all-candidates debates aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

Skipping some debates is a risk management strategy on the Tories’ part, said Conservative strategist Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies not working on the current campaign

The calculation: better to take the heat for not showing up than participate and make a mistake that becomes a distraction.

“Debates can be places where inexperienced politicians get themselves in trouble, or experienced politicians—thinking there isn’t as much attention—reach too far and find themselves having to clean up messes.”

All-candidates debates also aren’t necessarily the best way to win over undecided voters; often, crowd members are simply there to cheer on a particular candidate.

“I think (the Tories) do take the view that people who show up at these debates already have their minds made up,” Powers said. “I think they look and say the aggregation value of the debates versus the time spent out doing direct contact is not comparable.”

It isn’t just the debate itself that takes time; it’s all the necessary preparation for candidates. For first-time candidates, it can take a while.

“You don’t want to go in there and make a mistake, so that means you need to do your homework,” he said. “When you’re doing that prep work, you’re not connecting with voters.”

Political science professor Caroline Andrew, director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Governance, said whether it helps or hurts the candidate depends on how much publicity is devoted to their absence. It also depends on the riding.

“I think it may be harmful to some local candidates and not at all to others,” she said.

“It’s a calculated strategy that they’re going to get into less trouble by not being there. … Their idea is that people who don’t support them, don’t support them, and if they can get their message out to their supporters directly, that’s a better strategy.”

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