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Let's try for better mayoral debates in 2018

Before Toronto’s 2014 election becomes nothing but a faint and confusing memory, we should talk about the debates.

Because the debates were bad.

And it wasn't because of the candidates...OK, maybe it was a little because of the candidates. Nor does the blame fall on individual debate organizers, many of whom did a huge and mostly thankless amount of work putting the events together.

The debates were bad for other reasons.

First, let's agree there were far too many of them. By the time we finally got to the final televised debates leading up to election day, few seemed to care.

But the thing that bothers me more is there was generally no rhyme or reason behind the particulars. The formats varied wildly, with candidates in some cases receiving questions in advance and in other questions going in totally blind. Candidates were included or not included based on arbitrary distinctions. Some debates had an opportunity for candidates to talk to one another while others made that kind of thing forbidden, preferring to just have candidates give the equivalent of a long series of speeches.

In other words, it was the show where everything was made up and the points didn’t matter.

How Do We Fix It?

There’s a lot that needs to change before 2018.

Let’s start with the notion of who was invited to debate in the first place. It was based on no solid criteria. I had at least four mayoral candidates ask me over the course of the campaign what it would take to get themselves into debates. The appropriate answer was a shrug.

When pressed about who they chose to invite, debate organizers would say they only wanted to include top-polling candidates. It was a fair thing to say, because debates with dozens of candidates — including Sarah Thomson and, presumably, her horse — would be a whole different level of bad. But the problem with that reasoning is only a select few candidates are included in polls in the first place.

So by “top-polling candidates,” what debate organizers generally meant were candidates Forum Research — the only pollster that regularly polls municipal issues in Toronto — decided to include during the election's earliest stages.

There’s virtually no mechanism through which a candidate can become a “top-polling candidate.” If you’re not in the polls, you won’t be in the debates. And if you’re not in the debates, it’s hard to get noticed enough to be included in the polls.

Could we fix this? And could we perhaps make debates suck less? I’m not sure. Absent formal political parties, Toronto’s elections will probably always be hazy and chaotic. But there are ways to at least try to do better.

To start, the dozens of organizations and advocacy groups that each held individual debates over the past year should come together and talk. Instead of nearly 100 small debates, the goal should be to hold a few big ones. Even with a long campaign period, five or six debates, each with a singular focus like transit or poverty, would be plenty. Hold each debate in a large venue and make sure it’s televised.

There should also be a common set of rules, which will make it easier for candidates and organizers. Ditch the opening statements, as some organizers did. Don’t provide the questions in advance. And allow for some back-and-forth between candidates.

Finally, we need a fair way to determine who gets included. Whether it’s an independent poll that includes all registered candidates or some sort of system that requires campaigns to demonstrate popular support through a petition, there needs to be solid logic behind who makes the main stage and who gets relegated to the sidelines.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. After the 2010 municipal election, there was much grousing about the number of debates and how they need to change. But the 2014 debates were pretty much exactly the same.

The last thing we want is to be surprised when a new mayoral debate season kicks off with all the same problems. So let’s take the time to debate the future of debates. Let’s figure out how to debate things better.

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