The Futility of Election Debates

Last night I wandered down the road from my place to the U of Winnipeg to take in the all party debate on poverty and hunger.  This debate was in advance of the Manitoba provincial election coming up on October 4.  The debate was sponsored by Winnipeg Harvest, the Winnipeg organization that supplies much of the food that is given out by food banks in Winnipeg.

The debate featured members of the five political parties running candidates.  There was Darrell Rankin of The Communist Party, Gord Mackintosh of the current governing New Democratic Party(NDP), Troy Osiname from the Liberal Party, Belinda Squance of the Progressive Conservative Party (PC) and Harold Dyck of the Green Party.

The debate was moderated by Janet Stewart of CBC television.  Ms. Stewart did a creditable job trying to keep the candidates to their allotted times.  She did an even better job on making sure the candidates answered the questions that were asked.  Unfortunately she also gave the NDP and Progressive Conservative candidates too much of an advantage in answering questions.  I know they have almost all the seats between them, but the debate shouldn’t be shaped in such a way as to make their opinions seem more important.

On the whole the tone of the debate was very civil.  This was a pleasant change from the sectarian acrimony that marked the last federal election and seems to be endemic in the political processes of our neighbours to the south.  There was some measure of sniping, particularly between the NDP and PC debaters, but of a fairly mild sort.

The debate focused on issues of food security, homelessness, job availability and wages, income levels and childcare.  Here’s the thing though, after sitting there for two and a quarters hours, there was almost nothing of a concrete nature that one could take away from the debate.

There was general agreement that poverty is bad.  There was talk of programs that were doing some things.  There was also talk about how we need to do better, but it was all very vague and nebulous.

One of the concerns I keep hearing over and over is how we need to get more people out to vote.  Well, here’s my take.  If you didn’t go in with an idea of who you wanted to vote for, or if you went in thinking your vote didn’t matter, there was a very high probability that you left feeling the same way.

I think the problem lies in the debate format itself.  I started thinking as the event wound down how different this night was from the “Next City” event that I went to at the Gas Station Theater a couple of weeks ago.  That event was organized on the “Pecha Kucha” concept.  An idea from the design world, where you get twenty slides and twenty seconds a slide to pitch your ideas.  In the case of “Next City,” the event was built around the idea of what our city should look like in the coming years, and how we can go about doing this.

Now this idea isn’t flawless, but one of the things it forces people to do, is to put their imaginations to work.  That’s what is missing from so much of our political discussions.  There is no imagination.

Listening to the debates, there was nothing that I, as person with no party affiliation, could latch onto and say, yes, that’s the kind of thing that will transform our attitudes and actions on poverty.  At worst it was simply politicians spouting party lines and at best, well, maybe this person will at least make an effort.

The thing is, eradicating poverty and eliminating hunger, to the extent that we can do this, doesn’t require new programs.  Eradicating poverty and eliminating hunger requires new imaginations.  From what I saw last night, none of the parties running are capable of doing that.


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