At least half of the PC’s candidates across the province have decided not to attend any debates in their ridings this election, giving rise to concern about the erosion of democratic norms in Ontario.
It’s something that PC Leader Doug Ford hasn’t been eager to discuss with reporters who have questioned the party leader in recent days on why Tory candidates have skipped riding candidate forums and ignored local media in particular cities.
While the PC campaign refused to say how many of its candidates have participated in debates this election campaign, Queen’s Park Today counted 63 ridings where PC candidates have skipped debates — just over half of their total slate of 122 candidates.
Former federal Liberal strategist Scott Reid said he would be shocked if the real figure wasn’t higher, noting it is indicative of a larger pattern in how the PCs are choosing to conduct their campaign.
“Central campaigns thrive on control, discipline, risk aversion. That explains why Doug Ford doesn’t issue his itinerary in advance and makes himself available to media as little as often as possible,” said Reid, principal of Feschuk-Reid. “It explains indisputably why you see candidates being told — either implicitly or explicitly — to avoid local debates.”
He said “the inescapable truth of elections in 2022 is that much of what’s good for a central campaign is lousy for grassroots democracy.”
One of those ridings is Parkdale—High Park, where PC candidate Monika Frejlich has reportedly missed two debates, one of which took place on Wednesday evening. Her Liberal opponent Karim Bardeesy noted that he “reminded the audience that the PCs were not there and that it was disrespectful.”
“These elections are sacred democratic rituals, and the chance to hear from the people involved is a key part of that,” Bardeesy told Queen’s Park Today.
There are some outliers. For example, PC candidate Robin Martin, who is in a tough fight to keep her seat in a former Liberal stronghold, participated in an all-candidates debate in Eglinton-Lawrence earlier this week.
Ford insisted on Thursday there are PC candidates attending debates before quickly changing the subject.
“Some candidates have chosen to participate in all-candidates’ forums and others have chosen to spend their time taking their message directly to voters at the door,” the PC campaign added.
Debate attendees often feature few undecided voters: former PC strategist
Former PC strategist and current vice-president of McMillan Vantage, Karl Baldauf, said the Tory campaign is making the best tactical decision for the party by skipping the debates and focusing instead on door-to-door canvassing.
Baldauf said PC candidates need to “spend every waking moment of the election campaign at the doors” to ensure they build a presence in their communities and bring voters out on June 2.
Local debates, meanwhile, are often poorly attended and organized by “interest groups,” and those who do come are typically partisans who have already made up their minds, he added. Even just two hours out of a month-long campaign could be better spent canvassing to reach the “silent majority” of voters who are only passively engaged in the election and are more likely to vote PC.
“If I was a local campaign manager, I’d say ‘no, I prefer the candidate to go walk the streets,’” said Baldauf. “If people are interested in what the candidates think about something, they can contact candidates and speak to them directly.”
Reid agreed that avoiding debates is likely the best call for the PCs strategically. Aside from the benefits of more door-knocking, the PCs are also likely afraid of onstage debate gaffes and local media interactions.
“It isn’t even the fear that a local candidate will cause themselves local harm by what might be said or experienced during a debate. It’s rather the fear that a local candidate who goes off script, who’s undisciplined, might reflect negatively on the central campaign and cause harm for the leader,” said Reid.
“These are the calculations that people make from a professional political standpoint when running campaigns. It’s all about control and risk aversion.”
‘Fouling our own nest’
The problem is, argued Reid, this kind of election strategy is not without consequences. Not only does it deny the chance to see how the candidates handle themselves under intense scrutiny, it also erodes democratic norms that can have long-term repercussions down the line.
The PC’s decision to avoid debates and media interviews “amounts to an attempted assault on the democratic process,” he said, which has been shown in the U.S. to lead to “bare-fang grievance politics” and the rise of figures like Donald Trump, who don’t even feel the need to tell the truth when speaking publicly.
He argues mistrust of institutions and political leaders is being caused by the “institutionalization of professional politics.”
“Almost all professional political techniques — and I’m speaking as someone who has and probably will employ them again — foster cynicism, cultivate control, force discipline and, to varying degrees, chip away at the democratic process,” he said. “We foul our own nest in order to get more efficiently re-elected.”
Baldauf, meanwhile, doesn’t believe candidates should take part in debates for the sake of the democratic system, arguing this is just how political campaigning in a democratic system changes over time.
“We used to have a democratic norm of people standing on a soapbox at a street corner and professing what they think about everything, and that was the norm within the democratic process,” he noted. “The way in which election campaigns unfold evolves … around ‘how do we communicate with the most number of people who may be undecided as efficiently as possible.’”