Why we should care about Trudeau’s debate snub

A empty podium stand where Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau turned down the invitation for the debate as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, centre, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh take part during the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Thursday, September 12, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

There’s probably no magic number for the correct amount of leaders’ debate that ought to occur during the course of a federal election campaign.

A case could be made for just one — or at least, one in each official language. On the other hand, what’s to say we can’t have several, perhaps even having specific debates devoted to specific issues?

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Conversely, though, political leaders are and should be free to decide which debates they wish to participate in or whether they intend to participate in any at all. A politician who subscribes to a strict “no debate” policy ought to be viewed with suspicion, but that’s no reason to sanction them or keep them off the ballot.

Perhaps, too, we overstate the importance of debates, or we’ve grown weary and cynical about the regurgitation of political talking points and the desperate attempts at scoring a knockout blow or spawning a viral moment.

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Hopefully, though, we are not so apathetic as to shrug at a very deliberate debate snub by a major political leader. Hopefully we’re not so entrenched in our political tribes that the actions of political leaders during campaigns have no bearing on how we judge them.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau will indeed be participating in leaders’ debates during this campaign. Once he’s finally on that stage, we will have an opportunity to judge his performance and his credibility. We should not forget then, just as we should not ignore now, the fact that Trudeau couldn’t be bothered to show up to a leaders’ debate on Thursday.

It is a move that smacks of arrogance and its one that the Liberals deserve to pay a political price for.

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Politics today is cynical enough as it is without us going down the path of deciding that debates no longer matter. It’s not just a question of tradition, but rather a question of what we as voters should expect. We should expect our political leaders to stand before us, alongside their opponents, and make their best case to us. We should expect them to challenge one another and hold one another to account.

Really, it’s the one aspect of the campaign where things are not tightly controlled. As much as candidates are prepping for the debate and memorizing their talking points, events are largely outside of their control. The rest of the campaign tends to be scripted speeches and rallies and glad-handing with party supporters. Let’s be protective of that element of spontaneity and unpredictability. We’ll certainly miss it if it’s gone.

Ultimately, voters’ minds may not be changed by what they see or hear. Many voters may well have made up their minds before the writ is even dropped in the first place. So be it. But that’s not an excuse for avoiding debate.

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There was no good reason for Justin Trudeau to have been absent from that stage Thursday night. It was appropriate indeed for organizers to leave an empty podium on stage (Green Party Leader Elizabeth May pretending to shake hands with the man who wasn’t there was a nice touch) — it should be made obvious that there is an important person missing from the procedures and that that person could have easily made an appearance.

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Trudeau and the Liberals are banking on people not caring. And maybe they’ll be proven right. If so, we can expect more such absences in the future, and that will be a major disservice to voters. The idea that an incumbent prime minister doesn’t have to take the stage to debate his or her opponents or defend his or her record is one we as voters should most definitely bristle at.

It would be silly to say that Trudeau’s debate snub should make or break the election or be the sole reason why one would cast a ballot against his party. But his cynicism and arrogance shouldn’t be ignored, nor should we assume that it’s confined to this one incident. It’s a bad look for someone who pledged to elevate politics in this country.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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