2011 IRE Election, Ray D'Cruz, View opinion pieces

The perils of five-way debates: what Irish leaders can learn from the Canadian experience

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

In a little under 24 hours, five Irish leaders will debate in the second Leaders’ Debate of the 2011 Irish election.

The first debate had just two leaders: Micheal Martin (Fianna Fail) and Eamon Gilmore (Labour). This was for the major party leaders – with the notable absentee being Enda Kenny (Fine Gael) who opted out for a range of reasons.

There aren’t too many countries that go for five-way debates. Canada is one, and there are a number of interesting issues to be observed from their most experience of this phenomenon, the 2008 English Language Leaders’ Debate.

1. Debates are messy

Five leaders sparring across a range of issues makes for a messy debate.

If a leader wants to be remembered, they must have a clear and concise vision, together with policies that demonstrate the vision. This vision is distinct from slogans and catchphrases. It is a genuine point of difference, in principle or philosophy that arguments and examples can support and explain.

They must also make their case very clearly. This may include “signposting” arguments or numbering them to make recollection easier for the audience. Such structure also conveys a sense of discipline and clear thinking, a positive impression in what may well be a messy and confusing debate.

2. Attacking the government

In this debate you can expect that Mr Martin will be relentlessly attacked as the Fianna Fail leader. The numeric reality of these five-way debates is that one person is usually defending the government while four are attacking. It happened in the Canadian debate, despite the incumbent Stephen Harper being relatively well-regarded.

This is both a challenge and an opportunity for Mr Martin. When directly attacked, he may be allowed a response by the moderator. This means that he will get to dominate the debate in a temporal sense. If he uses the time well, and we know he can, he may be able to stand-out from amongst the throng.

Opposition leaders must be careful to balance their attack. Mr Gilmore must ensure that he does not focus excessively on Mr Martin while giving his more likely opponent for the position of Taoiseach, Mr Kenny, an easy run.

In a five-person debate, there is an extent to which leaders’ must be able to adapt the target of their attacks to the dynamics of the debate. This is tricky, but it may determine who wins the debate and it may also determine which opponent is marked the clear loser.

3. Minor party strategy

Minor parties have a difficult balancing act in politics: balancing their entrenchment of their traditional base with a desire to broaden their appeal. This strategy challenge is evident in televised leaders’ debates.

This may be a particular challenge for John Gormley (Greens). The debate will cover a wide range of issues and he will need to assess whether to connect all responses to a green agenda or whether to be more expansive.

The Canadian leaders’ debate provided contrasting examples: Greens’ leader Elizabeth May was expansive and presented herself as an alternate leader. Gilles Duceppe from Bloc Quebecois was far more parochial in his responses and simply did not participate in parts of the debate.  While Elizabeth May did better in the debate, the bigger question is how did this play to potential voters.

It may be less of a challenge for Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein) if his overriding aim is building general acceptance and credibility.

Conventional wisdom

Since the 2008 Canadian debate, we’ve covered two US presidential debates and a vice presidential debate, three UK leaders’ debates and an Australian debate. All of these have had two or three speakers. In most situations, minor parties have requested participation but major parties have declined and the media have complied.

The conventional wisdom is that leaders’ debates provide oxygen for the less well-profiled candidates. This may well be the case in Ireland too. However, the Canadian experience suggests that minor parties have a challenging position in these debates, and that sometimes being the incumbent under fire isn’t such a bad place to be in a five-person debate.

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