Riskless business?

By Sam Hagenlocher

If you’re a politician running for public office, there are certain activities you’re expected to do in order to win. Things like talking to your constituents, communicating your ideas, and debating your opponents. These activities are what some would refer to as “pillars of the democratic process” – things that allow the voter to make an informed choice before casting their ballot. Of particular importance is the last one – debating your opponents.

The process of allowing voters to see how their next potential leaders engage with one another in an unscripted environment, highlighting their differences while arguing their ideas is an essential part of democracy. How political leaders perform in live debate has been a deciding factor in Canadian elections since the days of Confederation.

Unfortunately for voters, there has been a trend – specifically amongst the Conservative party – in recent years of avoiding this age old tradition of head-to-head political discourse.

This was highlighted much during the 2011 federal election, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his fellow Tory candidates outright refused to attend any all-candidate debates, opting instead for tightly controlled media events where the attendees were hand-picked, and the questions scripted and approved in advance. The purpose of this was to avoid making costly political blunders, while controlling the message. While many politicians, journalists and voters across the country were outraged by this approach, the strategy worked surprisingly well, yielding Harper and the Conservatives a much coveted majority, and inspiring other Tory candidates to do the same.

But now it seems this Tory strategy of playing it cool and quiet in areas where they are historically favoured may be beginning to backfire.

In the recent federal by-elections this past November, Larry Maguire, Conservative candidate for Brandon-Souris, was scheduled for debates at the Indian Metis Friendship Centre as well as Brandon University, but cancelled each at the last minute, citing scheduling conflicts. His decision not to attend the debates was condemned by members of the First Nations and student communities, even inciting boos from the audience when his named was mentioned. Though he did later attend a Chamber of Commerce debate, he refused unscripted questions, and avoided the media as he exited.

“It was all carefully staged to avoid anything that could be potentially embarrassing,” said David Neufeld, Green Party candidate for Brandon-Souris, over the phone this week. “[Maguire] agreed to be at all of the debates. But then he backed out of the first two, probably because the he knew the questions weren’t going to be as sympathetic in those debates as they would be in the Chamber of Commerce one.”

Heading into the election, Maguire was a heavy favorite in the historical Tory stronghold, which the Conservatives won in 2011 by a staggering 13,541 votes. While Maguire did end up winning the by-election, it would seem the strategy of ‘playing not to lose’ may have backfired. Instead of another massive margin of victory, Maguire won by a mere 391 votes; barely edging out his Liberal rival – a party they had beaten by more than 58 points in the previous election.

Arthur-Virden, Maguire’s previous riding, will be holding provincial by-elections this week. Unsurprisingly, a similar storyline seems to be shaping up. Arthur-Virden is another historical Tory stronghold much like Brandon-Souris. Their Tory candidate, Doyle Piwniuk, also won’t be attending debates this election. Floyd Buhler, Liberal candidate for Arthur-Virden, stated earlier this week in an email that all of the candidates had an opportunity to have a debate, but Piwniuk failed to confirm a date, so the debate was cancelled.

“I was so looking forward to the opportunity of a debate; if you are going to have a strong voice there is no better forum to have it heard by the public. But they never got that chance,” said Buhler.

But the irony, Buhler said, of Piwniuk’s reluctance to have a public debate came last week, when he received a Piwniuk campaign flyer in his mailbox with a familiar slogan on it. The slogan was, “A Strong Voice For Arthur-Virden”. It was Buhler’s slogan, which he had already been using for weeks.

“I was pretty frustrated so I went on their website to see if they had changed their tack. Sure enough, all of the sudden it was ‘strong voice’ and he had finally put up a policy platform (previous to that it had only been a biography) on his site that greatly resembled what I had already been saying for weeks,” said Buhler. The Liberal candidates’ campaign had been gaining momentum amongst voters, which he said he feels is the reason Piwniuk’s campaign finally decided to start taking things seriously.

“The part that made me the most angry is that if there was no perceived threat to their campaign I don’t know that we would have seen anything from them,” Buhler said. “With the extreme support the PC’s have in this region, it just feels like they are playing not to lose.”

There’s an old adage – “no risk, no reward”. The implication is that it’s tough to gain anything in life if you’re always playing it safe. This is true in many things. The reason the Conservatives have enjoyed success doing the opposite, it would seem, is that they haven’t been trying to gain much, but are simply playing it safe so that they can retain what they’ve got.

The problem with this strategy is that in politics, like in sports, inevitably playing it safe becomes a risk, as eventually you will face an opponent with nothing to lose. Because fortune, as they say, almost always favours the bold.