City Political Debates; a Total Waste of Time

As the Toilet Tissue Roles... the debate continues
As the Toilet Tissue Roles... the debate continues

By Jim Mauro

THUNDER BAY – OPINION – Elections. They are part of our system of government where participation should be a patriotic and moral duty. Political debates are part of this process, but for the most part I believe they are meaningless in Thunder Bay.

Over the years, my brother Bill participated in countless debates, some for-city council and others as MPP. The organizers seemed to put very little thought into who will be asking the questions and/or moderating the event. Making matters worse, is the lack of critical analysis from our mainstream media when these debates are reported on.

During one election held at the Community Auditorium, there were about 150 people in attendance. Each party had its supporters so perhaps twenty percent of the people there (30 or so) were still deciding on who to vote for. This is the norm for most debates. Hosted by the “media” one question asked of each candidate was what kind of vehicle they drove. Was that information helpful to the voter? The was no push back on various statements by candidates that were obviously false and worse, the answers provided were reported as factual. This does very little to inform the voter.

During a different debate for MPP, the candidates were highly critical of my brother over electricity prices. They accused the government of being responsible for the loss of jobs and mill closures that were taking place across the region. The media didn’t bother with a deeper dive on the electricity issue. They should have wondered why the province of Quebec with its far cheaper hydro electric power, still had more employees laid off and more mill closures than Ontario. My brother made that comment but of course it was not reported on. No sense contradicting the questionable narrative.

Putting the electricity issue into context easily could have been done by reporting on the dramatic reduction in newspaper readership across North America. Paper mills everywhere were closing but that did not seem relevant to our media. The electricity issue made for great headlines. So, at the auditorium debate one candidate believed they could say whatever they wanted and not be challenged. With our media of the day, that candidate was correct.

The candidate referred to “all of the other businesses” that have closed besides the mills because of the electricity policy of the Liberals. My brother, in what was a brilliant response simply said, “Name One”. Now in a REAL DEBATE, being stumped is never a good thing. You look ill prepared or even amateurish when you stand there with no response. There was none from the candidate who had made the baseless comment. So, my brother asked again for that candidate to name one. The candidate could not. Fifteen seconds of complete silence is an eternity in a debate.

Now this should have been the end of that candidacy. In a normal media environment, that would have been on the front page or the lead on television; “T. Smith left speechless when false statement challenged by MPP Mauro”. But this is Thunder Bay where this too was not reported. Nothing on television, radio or print that revealed that interaction to the voter. How could that be? So perhaps a handful of voters out of a population of 110,000 saw a candidate make a false accusation, and not be able to back it up. It almost makes you think that the media were not a fan of one of those candidates.

In a debate for Mayor a few elections ago, I watched the moderator have no control over questions from the floor. A question was allowed from the floor that should never have been. It was obviously planted and designed to embarrass another candidate. The moderator should have immediately stopped the question. Instead, a candidate was forced to answer it.

Due to a scheduling conflict, I once subbed in for my brother to read answers to pre-submitted questions. This non-debate was put on by the Real Estate Board and while I have a great fondness for many of those who work in the business, I am still not sure why this Board would hold a “debate” for 30-40 people that received little to no media coverage. There are far too many of these small area debates attended by handfuls of people. With limited or usually no media coverage, and with them being organized by specific groups with specific agendas, they provide little to no direct information to most potential voters to consider and weigh when choosing who to vote for.

Debates are often held by the Thunder Bay Labour Council and the agenda is driven towards labour issues. That is a subset of the electorate. As a former union President, I can understand the desire to hold these, but I do not feel they benefit the community at large in determining who may be the best candidate to elect. Many groups put out questioners to candidates specific to their cause. While not ideal, it is a far better use of the candidate’s time. It would be beneficial to the voter if something like this could be done on a far grander scale.

During the 2000 election our police union partnered with the firefighter’s union to host a mayor’s debate which I moderated. Each union was able to ask two questions of the candidates but the rest of the almost two hours would be open to the public. I ensured that those from the floor would not take 3 minutes or longer to give a speech before they ever get to the question. This happens at far too many area debates. I have moderated other debates for various wards and believe the moderator role is vital to our debate process.

During one CBC debate on local radio, my brother was again participating. And while I can be accused of bias, something I freely acknowledge, I have not seen a local politician in my memory be as knowledgeable or as clear on policy as he is. During this debate, the other two participants often agreed with the position being put forward by my brother on a range of topics. Several times their answers were “I agree with Bill”, usually because they were not prepared for the question. You would think the “moderator” might ask: then what is it about your candidacy that would make a voter choose you over the incumbent? A reasonable question that any reporter should ask but didn’t.

Instead, the reporter gave a gushing tribute to all three candidates about how well informed they were on the issues and how it is going to be difficult for voters to choose who to vote for. We certainly knew who the reporter was voting for. Again, not a word in the media about how ill-prepared these candidates were in addressing the issues being discussed. And finally, we arrive at the last debate I will speak about, the recent election for Mayor.

While the public library hosted what was called a “debate”, a more accurate description would be the opportunity for the voter to hear what the candidate would say to specific questions. At least the library provided a forum for the candidates to appear at. But again, did our media do their job in educating the voter on who is deserving of their vote? You tell me.

All questions were provided to the candidates well in advance. One candidate was asked if they supported both the multi-purpose facility and the building of a new police station, a cost exceeding 100 million dollars to the taxpayer. The candidate was provided two minutes to answer and not once mentioned either building. Nothing was learned by that answer nor was it reported on. The media did not make one statement about the lack of information provided by various candidates on questions they had weeks in advance. If you were not in attendance, and space was extremely limited, how would you know?

In the last election only about 43% of eligible voters, cast a ballot. It is clear the level of indifference in our city is serious. Can we just blame our media for that? No, but the lack of reporting in my view is a contributing factor that needs to change. Let me give you one more example of how our media has failed us, using electricity costs to again illustrate the point.

During that same election when my brother stumped the candidate, our local paper ran a story driven by the same party that the “silenced candidate” belonged to, on the front page of the paper. It was a photo of a women who could not afford to run her fan during a recent heat wave because of Dalton McGuinty’s hydro rates. The story read like it was written by the opposition party itself and it painted a terrible portrait of this poor women who could not run her fan because of the cost. Vote for our party not the liberals was the point of the story.

I decided to call Hydro One and ask what the cost would be to run that fan for 12 hours a day. The answer was about ten cents. So, this “major story” on the front page about this issue was set up to portray something that didn’t exist. Instead of providing real information, our newspaper provided innuendo and falsehoods far removed from reality. I often am critical of our local mainstream media for their lack of real coverage on stories. This example to me, from many years ago only demonstrates the limited information that many people’s opinions are based on.

Do I think things will change? No, but I would love to host the next Mayor’s debate and ensure that any voter that wishes to, will have the chance to at least see a debate that should illicit necessary information for voters. Designed so that those seeking your vote are pressed on taking a position on issues such as taxation, public safety, or infrastructure. To prevent candidates from avoiding answering a question because they either do not know or do not wish to tell you their positions on these topics.

In the last city election, I do not recall any other candidate speaking about tax rates. I did, and I put forward a specific target, but this was not covered at all but any of the mainstream media. Taxes have gone up 11% under this council. Maybe next election we can ask those seeking your vote if they have any plans on what they may wish to cut to keep taxes affordable. Or we can simply not vote and spend our time in the coffee shop complaining about taxes. Taxes are up 11% so far, and there is no multi-purpose centre or a decision on a new police station.

Debates should illicit concrete answers on policy from candidates. They should reveal who is running because they have a plan for where the city should go instead of just planning on getting along. Recently I advised Councillor Etreni that I disagreed with her position on the outdoor rinks but applauded her for taking a position. She already has my vote next time because unlike too many on council, she doesn’t just talk, she acts. It is easier for me to support someone who I disagree with, then to support someone who never dares to take a position. There are enough of those around the council table already.

But until we have real debates and until we have real coverage of what candidates stand for, things will continue as they have been. So more of the same old same old I’m afraid. Just a thought.

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