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October 2008
November 2008

2008-10-04 »

Moderation Matters

If you've been paying attention to the news, you might recall the controversy around allowing Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, into the Canadian federal election debates in the first place. Basically, her party has zero elected seats at the moment, which would normally preclude her from participating, except that they appear to be growing fast and popular opinion was that they should be allowed in. Stephen Harper, of the Conservatives, objected to her inclusion:

    Harper said letting May participate in the debates would be in essence allowing a "second Liberal candidate" to participate, which he called "fundamentally unfair."

       -- cbc.ca

Much denounced for his view at the time, he turned out to be entirely right, as four largely indistinguishable liberalistic parties ganged up on him for two hours straight.

But here's the thing:

Despite the fundamental unfairness of a four-against-one fight, the debate wasn't unfair in the end. It was saved by one key rule of order: if you criticize someone or their policies in one of your statements, you implicitly give them the next turn to speak, and the moderator enforces it.

Now, I haven't done any formal debating and I don't have a background in political science. Maybe this is a standard rule that's applied everywhere. But if it is, I haven't heard of it, and I blithely assume that you might be like me, so I'm telling you about it now.

That rule changes everything. Because the four alternative candidates spent all their time criticizing Stephen Harper, he got to speak in almost every second time slot. Basically, by working together against him, they changed the balance of the debate to give him more weight, which counterbalanced their own strategy.

If they had concentrated on their own policies and criticizing each other, they would have all had more time to speak. But Harper, whose party is in power so people know all about it anyway, would have gotten less criticism. That would have been fair too, but probably a worse strategy.

The result was that we heard a pretty good balance of both sides of the story, which is the best I could have hoped for.

Congratulations to whoever invented those debating rules.

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