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Why Rob Ford Won the First Mayoral Debate and Toronto Lost

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Last night was the first Mayoral Debate for the 2014 City of Toronto election and it was a hot mess. The whole thing came across as a yelling match between the candidates and an embarrassment to the city. It was hard to understand their platforms (if any) and easy to see that all 5 of these potential Mayors are frustrated. I blame the format of the debate above all else.

City TV, hosts of the televised and live-streamed debate, conducted the whole thing in the following format: one minute for each candidate to answer a question, followed by three minutes of open-floor where everyone could talk at once, followed by a one-on-one question between two candidates. Each candidate got to ask a total of one question to another candidate -- leaving most candidates ignored. The candidates had to speak on Transit, Finances and Leadership before giving their closing remarks. With a format like this, candidates faced little fear of follow-up questions. Three minutes of open-floor also means we, the audience, will hear little in actual statements and lots in pure noise in chaos. Candidates were essentially able to say whatever they wanted, on one of the three topics, in their initial one-minute of speaking time, without a lot of direct dialogue or accountability.

So, how do you tell a winner? It's hard to say, as I'm not sure what constitutes a "winner" in the case of this debate. Usually a demonstration of:

  • cost-effective plans with foresight,
  • a clear platform,
  • concern for the citizens and their living conditions,
  • and generally trustworthiness and truth

All are great criteria for determining a winner. But not so in last night's debate. Last night I watched as some candidates tried to use reason and logic to explain their proposals, but they ran out of time before getting to their message. I watched some candidates stretch the truth to attack each other, but that turned in to yelling. I watched people dodge many questions from other candidates, speaking on their terms rather than answering. And I watched Rob Ford say the same three things over-and-over (and quite loudly). With a debate set up like a school-yard sandbox, the loudest most repetitive voice gets heard.

Unfortunately, we heard three things from Rob Ford and not a whole lot else. When there's a democratic conversation and only one voice gets represented, everyone looses. In this case, Toronto lost.

In the future, I hope that these debates are presented in a format that has only one person speaking at a time, demands accountability, and still uses viewer polling (I really liked being able to vote on my smartphone). You can believe whatever you like, and I hope what you believe in is the truth. When it comes to politicking, the truth can be hard to uncover. Even worse, many voters don't often stick around for the truth or don't pay enough attention to multiple information sources to ascertain some semblance of the truth.

People hear what they want to believe and don't always question what they hear. They watch a debate on TV and they hear three things, and if those three things sound pretty awesome, they move on.

If you do want to salvage some actual truth from last night, check out the fact-check that Torontoist did on all 5 candidates' claims.

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