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Stifling debate may suit the BC Liberal party, but it doesn’t help voters

The Liberal leadership candidates assembled in Prince George on Thursday for the fourth "debate" of the campaign. None of the forums has produced a shred of news or controversy – which is just the way the Liberal party wants it.

Party headquarters approves the format of all of the forums, which is why they are all remarkably similar in design: Opening statements followed by insipid, non-controversial questions which the candidates have little time to respond to.

Why, you might ask, would the Liberal party want to inspire such blandness? Why wouldn't it want to create a format that generated some news coverage? The answer is simple: The party doesn't want the candidates taking pot shots at one another and handing the NDP material for the next election.

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In the same way that the Liberals would have used NDP MLA Jenny Kwan's denunciation of Carole James in an election campaign had Ms. James remained on the job to fight another day, the NDP would surely use any clips of a Liberal MLA denouncing a fellow leadership candidate who ends up becoming premier.

So, bland is good. Polite disagreement is acceptable but the candidates all understand it's not kosher to go on the attack – at least on stage in front of others. Behind the scenes it's a whole other story, one I will chronicle another day.

It's for this very reason that at least two television outlets are having such a hard time organizing something that resembles a real debate among the candidates. The stations, Shaw Cable being one of them, understandably want total control over the format. And that format will likely be intended to incite some real debate (even disagreement) among the candidates.

And perhaps provide that clip that could come back to haunt the future premier – or so the party and the candidates worry.

Why would Christy Clark, for instance, agree to participate in a debate where she has no control over the format? She is the perceived front-runner who only stands to lose from any kind of attack by her challengers. Even though she'd probably take some heat for not showing up and looking like she was afraid of debating her fellow candidates, there might be more for her to lose by taking part and being exposed on any number of fronts.

This is not like a provincial election where leadership candidates have little choice about attending a debate.

What is maddening about all this, of course, is that the format of the Liberal debates is not conducive to revealing true differences among the candidates. They all sound like they support the same things, with different accents on style and approach.

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It's pathetic to see a political party stifle debate in this way, especially for a position that is so important and has such impact on the lives of millions of people.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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