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About that decision of the government not participating in the CBC debate

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I have been letting this blog slide while I was taking a bit of vacation, but back now and wow, no shortage of communications-related topics cropping up on the provincial election, now that it has entered its formal and final stage. Lots of grist for the mill from the Tories opening the purse strings for the city of Moncton which kind of flies in the face of the spending restraint message, to the ongoing  Hanwell liquor store fiasco, to the Liberal leader’s decision to return the most wealthy but at the same time hundreds of small businesses back to a higher tax rate, to the First Nations challenge to the forestry deal and on, and on.

Fort someone who writes on communications issues, this is like a mile-long buffet.

But I have to pick one, so - what do you think of the decision of the government to boycott the CBC debate because the Green Party and the People’s Alliance will be participating?

From a communications strategy perspective it is curious, and with a considerable risk attached. This risk includes the Premier and party coming off as unfair, or scared, or leaving the impression it is just an excuse to avoid being challenged on broken promises or the economy or whatever.

I have no idea what the reason is aside from the one given, but I do know this – political debates hardly ever serve the interests of the incumbent government because by their very nature, a debate puts the government on the defensive.  But they have long been a part of political campaigns and they aren’t going to go away any time soon, so incumbent governments deal with it. Not usually by walking away mind you, but by limiting the number of debates it will participate in and influencing the format, that sort of thing.

Maybe this was somewhat of a power play with CBC, for which the party has no love lost. But while the Tories are taking a risk by not participating, this is no victory for the CBC either, as a debate without the government involved threatens to be somewhat of a dud.

So far, the CBC is hanging tough, saying it will go ahead with or without the government. OK, but what if it does. Who will watch? Or more on point, will it make a difference.

There is the rare case where there is a knockout punch, like Brian Mulroney’s – “You did have an option sir, you could have said no” to John Turner on the issue of patronage appointments. That was a knockout, but that was in 1984 and there hasn’t been one since. The point being, debates rarely have any effect on an election.

So on that level, there shouldn’t have been a whole lot for David Alward to fear. But the biggest fear isn’t the knockout; it’s how he comes across in comparison to Brian Gallant and Dominic Cardy. For what it’s worth, I think he could hold his own, but that’s neither here nor there.

But what if it goes ahead without him? Then you have four party leaders all scoring points at the Premier’s expense, without him there to offer any counterpoint. The problem isn’t the audience hearing the debate – they don’t have big ratings anyway, the bigger concern would be the next day’s headlines.

The PC Party strategy is to go all in on resource development, especially fracking. And it would appear they don’t want to talk about much else. But without the Premier at the debate, it’s a safe bet that the pro-fracking argument will not be made, but arguments for not proceeding right away sure will, and they will not be challenged. How can that possibly serve the government’s re-election effort?

That’s the risk. Debates may be a no win prospect for most governments. But you know they have to really be serious about avoiding any situation where they can’t control the message, to give up an opportunity to defend itself or push Liberal leader Brian Gallant to take a stand on anything controversial, something that so far, he has managed to avoid.

As far as strategy goes, a no show by the Premier threatens to serve his opponents better than it serves him.  The optics are terrible, and the reason given, that it is because David Coon and Kris Austin will be there, is pretty lame. 

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