By Ben Spurr
It's a stark contrast to previous elections, when mayoral challengers could face off dozens of times over the course of the campaign.
Voters could have a hard time getting a sense of how Toronto’s mayoral candidates stack up against one another this campaign.
With just over one month until election day, so far only one debate has been confirmed between the leading candidates vying to govern Canada’s largest city.
It’s a stark contrast to previous elections, when mayoral challengers could face off dozens of times over the course of the campaign. And experts say the lack of head-to-head meetings in the 2022 race is a troubling sign for the health of local democracy.
“It should be just a basic premise of democratic elections that the voters get to see the candidates multiple times debating each other,” said Robert MacDermid, professor emeritus of political science at York University.
He said debates are particularly important in a municipal contest like Toronto’s, in which there are no political parties and voters are less likely to be familiar with candidates’ platforms
“We definitely need more debates, to allow citizens to become more engaged, to allow candidates to be more explicit about where they stand,” MacDermid said.
There are several potential reasons for why fewer debates are planned this year, according to MacDermid, including voter apathy. Despite facing 30 challengers in the Oct. 24 election, the incumbent, John Tory, has few high profile rivals standing between him and a third term, and it’s expected there will be less political drama this campaign compared to previous ones.
Some groups that hosted debates in 2018 also told the Star that COVID-19 disrupted their ability to host candidate events this time around.
“We just don’t have the capacity,” said Jacoba Knaapen, volunteer chair of ArtsVote, which hosted the first debate of the 2018 campaign. She said the pandemic caused scheduling conflicts that meant the group didn’t have the resources to do it again this year.
For Canadian provincial and federal elections, broadcast consortia or a government commission are responsible for organizing leaders’ debates. But the process at the municipal level is more informal.
Traditionally, media and advocacy groups take it upon themselves to invite candidates to debates, many of them focusing on specific issues the organizations want to highlight, like transit, climate change or housing.
In the past, that has led to mayoral hopefuls showing up to nearly 100 debates in a campaign. That changed during the previous municipal election in 2018, when Tory took part in four debates. A handful of others went ahead without the mayor participating.
Still more debates were cancelled either due to logistical issues, or because organizers pulled the plug when Tory rejected a format that would have seen him up against his most prominent challenger, Jennifer Keesmaat, one-on-one. His campaign cited the need for organizers to include a diverse slate of candidates, while critics accused him of attempting to dodge his main rival.
So far, only the Toronto Region Board of Trade has confirmed it will hold a debate featuring the leading candidates for 2022. According to a spokesperson for the business advocacy group, the event will take place at noon on Oct. 17 and feature Tory, Gil Penalosa, Sarah Climenhaga, Chloe-Marie Brown, and Stephen Punwasi.
The Canadian Association for Retired Persons is also hoping to organize a forum on seniors issues on Oct. 1, but the group says it won’t go ahead without the mayor. The organization is still awaiting a response to an invitation it sent his campaign last week.
No other group that organized or attempted to organize a debate in 2018 confirmed to the Star they would do so this fall. That included Global News and CBC Toronto, both of which said they had yet to finalize plans for the 2022 campaign.
Transit advocacy group TTCriders said it wasn’t going ahead with an event this year because the mayor declined to attend the debates it held in the previous two elections. Faith in the City and Heritage Toronto said COVID-19 and other recent changes had forced them to shift their operations away from debates, while the Toronto Environmental Alliance said it was focused on securing climate commitments from candidates.
Jenessa Crognali, director of communications for the Tory campaign, said the mayor “expects to debate other candidates, as he has done each time his name has appeared on a ballot.”
According to Crognali, the mayor’s team “is still working through the details with CARP” regarding that group’s planned debate, and the campaign has been in contact with other organizations interested in hosting but “will let them announce the details when appropriate.”
Asked if the mayor has any conditions for attending debates, she said that, as in previous campaigns, the mayor wants “to make sure the debate stage is representative of all the candidates running for mayor and the city as a whole.”
Challengers for the mayor’s office are hoping more debates materialize.
Andrew Athanasiu, Penalosa’s director of policy, lamented that the Board of Trade debate will fall after advance voting takes place Oct. 7 to 14.
“To only have one (debate) after many people will have already voted … is not a sign of a healthy democracy. Gil will be involved in any debate that has John Tory in it,” he said.
Climenhaga, who took part in an online forum with lesser-known mayoral candidates on Saturday, said debates are “an essential part of the democratic process” and with technology making it easier to host them virtually as well as in person, “there is no good reason that I know of not to have them.”
This article was reposted from the Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/news/toronto-election/2022/09/20/with-only-one-mayoral-debate-confirmed-critics-question-health-of-local-democracy-we-definitely-need-more.html This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on Tuesday September 20 2022