For a time last year, it was difficult for Torontonians to turn on their television sets and not encounter a mayoral debate. Campaigning for partial control of a local government with an operating budget under $10-billion, the candidates appeared together in front of the cameras at least 10 times.
This spring, seeking almost complete control of a national government with annual expenditures approaching $300-billion, federal party leaders will cross paths a grand total of twice. Canadians who are not fluently bilingual will have the opportunity to watch precisely just one debate in a language they can understand, unless they're willing to sit through 90 minutes of voiced-over translation.
Something is very wrong here. Debates are one of the few ways to really capture voters' collective attention and inform their decisions. So why, in our biggest campaigns, do we have so few of them?
Nobody would suggest that the federal leaders square off every three or four days during a five-week campaign. That kind of schedule would preclude almost any other form of campaigning, and truth be told it would get boring in a hurry - losing the sense of occasion that compels many Canadians to watch politicians they spend the rest of their time ignoring.
But somewhere between the inadequate and the excessive lies a more appealing middle ground. And though Canadians may not want to hear this, we need only look south of the border to find it.
United States presidential campaigns have come to typically involve three presidential debates. The topics are influenced somewhat by what's top of mind - Iraq in 2004, the emerging recession in 2008. But in general, those races tend to feature one debate devoted primarily to foreign policy, one primarily to domestic policy and one to a grab-bag of issues raised in a town-hall format.
Were Canadian leaders to follow that lead, and mix English and French in each debate rather than isolating them, they could do a great deal more justice to each issue than in the hurried format we currently make do with. One debate, following the American model, could focus on foreign policy; another on economic stewardship. And if they didn't want to go the town-hall route, there would be any number of other topics that could combine to fill a third (and even a fourth) meeting - federal-provincial relations, health care, the environment, ethics and accountability, and so on.
The beauty of this format is that it makes it much more difficult, even in a crowded field, to fall back on simple talking points and wait for the next topic to come up a few minutes later. Federal leaders would be forced to engage, to respond seriously to each other, to display some depth of knowledge.
Ending the frenetic attempts to cover every possible topic in one sitting would likely cut back on the silly speculation about "knockout punches." But there would be a better chance of a technical knockout, if not a straight KO. A leader who could not hold his or her own on a key policy file would be badly exposed over the course of a full debate.
Of course, leaders would still be free to arrange additional one-on-one-debates - of the sort Michael Ignatieff wants with Stephen Harper - if they so chose. But some convention is needed to ensure that, whether they like it or not, each of the major party leaders is engaged in something more useful than what we have today.
"U.S.-style politics" is typically a pejorative term in this country, especially when invoked during a campaign. But in this case, the Americans have it about right.