Fri | Dec 14, 2018

Debates Commission should have stood firm

Published:Wednesday | February 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM


The declaration by the Jamaica Debates Commission that the three planned political 'debates' will be called off if the PNP refuses to participate is even more inexplicable than the PNP's withdrawal. Perhaps, the commission is itself confused by the misnomer.

A 'debate', in the classic sense, is the presentation and rebuttal of arguments by different sides with the only other intervention being by a rule master, be it a moderator or, in the case of Parliament, the speaker.

What has been staged over the past five elections is not a debate in that sense, but a question-and-answer exercise in which the political representatives are allowed to make opening and closing statements, but in the main are questioned by a select panel comprising, primarily, journalists and are allowed to rebut each other's arguments.

These events have served a useful purpose. First, they give each political party an opportunity to outline its vision, policies and planned actions and to do so to a wider and more representative audience than can be obtained at any mass meeting.

Second, they enable the efficacy of those policies and programmes to be explored and tested through questions from the panel. Third, and most important, they assist the voting public to better understand what differentiates the parties and thus be able to make more informed choices on election day.

The value of this exercise, while certainly diminished by the withdrawal of one party, is not lost. The PNP's withdrawal has deprived the voting public of better understanding its policy positions. The decision of the Debates Commission has effectively deprived the voting public of better understanding the JLP's policy positions.

The JLP has signified its willingness to participate with or without the PNP. While this may be seen as allowing it to have the stage all to itself, it would also expose it to more intense questioning.

The explanation offered by the Debates Commission that to proceed without both parties would breach its mandate to conduct the discourse "in an open and unbiased manner" is fallacious. The voluntary decision of one side not to participate cannot in any way place any bias on the part of the commission.

What it does is to place the entire exercise, not just on this occasion, but for all future elections, in jeopardy because it means that this important opportunity for the parties and the people has now been placed substantially in the control of the parties themselves, either of which will now be able to determine whether these 'debates' will take place.

It is not too late for the Debates Commission to stand firm.


Former Prime Minister