The upcoming leaders’ debates may be the best chance to create movement in an election that has seen polls deadlocked and nearly half of voters disengaged.
That’s a lot of pressure, not only on party leaders, but on the newly formed Leaders’ Debates Commission. Tasked with formalizing the debate process, the Commission determines which leaders meet the criteria for inclusion, and is working to make the events accessible to the widest and most diverse audience possible, among other duties.
Leading the Commission is former Governor General David Johnston. A Canadian with considerable experience, Johnston is the former president of the University of Waterloo and principal of McGill, and has chaired several national task forces. He has also moderated one provincial and two federal leaders’ debates since 1979. The advisory board Johnston leads, which I sit on, includes Canadians from different sectors and political affiliations.
I asked Johnston to share his thoughts on the importance of election debates, and how Canadians can get the most out of watching.
Why should Canadians be engaged in these debates?
I’d harken back to a famous U.S. statesman, who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Being engaged in the political process in one way or another is a part of that. This is a good country but we have to make it better, and one of our biggest enemies is complacency.
Are televised debates still relevant in the age of social media that allows more people to hear directly from campaigns?
The debate becomes very important—being able to hear these leaders unscripted, pressed by moderators, pressed by one another, to respond to important questions of the day, when so much else that we hear from them comes in a more scripted form. We see their character, their temperament in how they respond to those unscripted approaches.
What have you learned from your past experience with debates?
The live debate is one of the best opportunities to determine the level of trust. What we’ve seen in the last 10 to 20 years is more distrust of our public institutions, government and media. I think this is an important test of just that.
Why should young people watch the debates, even if they can’t vote?
For young people, this is an exercise in the development of critical thinking. And I think the policy choices that we make are very important to young people today. Maybe for the first time in the history of this country, I’m not certain I can say to my grandchildren: Life will be better for you than it was for me. What we do with elections and the democratic process has a very large bearing on that.
What should people do to get the most out of the debates?
Think about what you would gain by watching. Are you interested in learning about individuals, or about their policies and alternative policies? Make a list of the issues that are important to you. If they were addressed , was it in a way that was satisfactory? What was true, what was not true? Then, armed with some intellectual ammunition, go out and do work on behalf of causes and ideas that you believe in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.