Canada: where debates are real and pols aren't packaged. Professional image-making doesn't wash here

Political ``image makers'' have a tougher time packaging candidates in Canada than in the United States - as the current national campaign demonstrates. ``It wouldn't wash,'' says Marie-Andr'ee Bastien, secretary general of the opposition Liberal Party. ``Canadians would see that and resent it.''

Under a parliamentary system, the leaders of Canada's political parties sit in the House of Commons. ``Politicians are under scrutiny on a daily basis because of the question period,'' notes Ms. Bastien. In the question period, the prime minister and other Cabinet ministers are subject to questioning by any member of the House.

These question periods and all debates are broadcast over cable TV, which is available in the homes of some 90 percent of Canadians. This parliamentary channel is remarkably popular.

As a result, Canadian politicians have ``a pretty developed persona to begin with,'' as Bruce Phillips, communications director for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, put it. He adds, ``The artificiality of packaging would be pretty apparent.''

Of course, professional political managers are aware of the importance of ``sound bites'' and ``photo opportunities.'' Some have been trained in US political courses.

But the reluctance to package was shown in a three-hour debate in French between the leaders of the three top parties Monday. (A second debate in English was scheduled for Tuesday evening.) These are the only debates by all three leaders in the 55-day campaign leading up to elections on Nov. 21.

Bill Knight, federal secretary of the left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP), said party leader Ed Broadbent would be given before the debate a list of possible questions that journalists might ask, plus a briefing book - and that's all. The debates were relatively unscripted.

Moreover, they were genuine debates. The leaders able to rebut and question each other directly after receiving questions from journalists. Indeed, Mr. Mulroney and Liberal Party leader John Turner had a heated and direct exchange over free trade with the United States and a question of de-indexing social security pensions.

There wasn't much talk about which leader was the best debater.

``All three are veterans of probably the most free-wheeling parliament in the Western world,'' Phillips notes. ``They all have developed debating skills. This debate is a little bit like those in the House of Commons, but tightened up and concentrated. The skills it calls upon are the same.''

Another difference with the US is that the prime minister is less able to isolate himself from the press without sharp criticism. Mr. Mulroney came under fire this month for avoiding the media in a week when he spent five hours and 15 minutes talking to television cameras, editorial boards, and press conferences.

In Canada, party heads, and thus prime ministers, always have years of experience in Parliament before winning their leadership positions at party conventions. There are no Dan Quayle-surprises in Canadian federal politics.

About 75 percent of eligible Canadians vote in federal elections, much higher than the 50 percent or so in American federal elections.

One reason is a different system for registering voters in Canada. When this election was called, an election commission instructed some 87,000 enumerators to knock on every door in urban areas and recheck rural lists to make up a new electoral list. The total number of voters will come close to 16.8 million when fully tallied Thursday.

Some people out of the country on vacation or business may miss out on voting. There are no absentee ballots, except for diplomats and members of the armed forces.

The system is expensive; this election is costing about $112 million (Canadian; US$93 million). But it means about 97 percent of those eligible are on the voter lists.

Canadian politicians have relatively low limits on the amount they can spend in a campaign - $7.8 million for each major federal party.

In addition, each of the candidates for the 295 seats in the House can spend, on average, a maximum of just under $49,000. The actual sum varies according to such factors as the number of voters and the geographical size of the district.

Paid advertising was only allowed on television and radio starting last Sunday. The stations are required to provide up to 6.5 hours of time at their lowest rates.

This time is allotted in proportion to the number of seats each party holds in the House of Commons. Thus, the Tories get 195 minutes, the Liberals 89 minutes, and the NDP 67 minutes. But given their budgets, the parties likely will not use all that time. There is expected to be less negative ads than in the US.

Also, each major TV and radio network must give 3.5 hours of free prime time to the parties, allotted in a similar manner. At midnight on November 19, broadcast campaign commercials must cease.

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