Q-and-A: Martin Regg Cohn on pre-provincial election brainstorming event

Premier Kathleen Wynne and opposition leaders Vic Fedeli (PC), Andrea Horwath (NDP) and Mike Schreiner (Green) will be together onstage for a pre-election brainstorming session at the Sears Atrium on Wednesday. The panel will be moderated by distinguished visiting professor and Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn. Here’s what Cohn has to say about the upcoming event:

Q: This is being marketed as a brainstorming session and not necessarily a debate. What’s the difference between it and sort of a more formal debate?

A: We want to make sure that people didn’t come looking for a slugfest. It is part of the job of an opposition leader to oppose them, to criticise. And it’s part of the job of a government or premier to all of us to put your best face forward. If people aren’t engaged and people aren’t paying attention then they can’t even begin to share their ideas and find a voice. So in a traditional debate, we’re all conditioned to do the winners and losers in a boxing match and as performance art. And in this case, it’s more about trying to make sure that everybody is at least tuning in. And I think part of the idea is to challenge them to say ‘Okay, do we agree on what the problem is?’ and if we can, then ‘What are the answers?’ and ‘What do you do? What is your party doing?’.

I was overseas for 11 years as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, and when you spend so much of your time as a journalist watching people who are deprived of democracy, and who die for democracy, who are fighting or dodging bullets to get a ballot…come back to Canada and you see that so many people are not even bothering to cast a ballot, it kind of breaks your heart.

Q: How do we get students more engaged in federal and provincial politics? Do you think that events like this are a good start to sort of re-evaluate how we convince kids to come out and vote?

A: Maybe it’s online voting, maybe there are other issues we can tweak with new Canadians and young Canadians. The biggest single reason that [they give for not voting is] that they’re not registered to vote or believe they’re not registered. And the truth is that for most Canadians, they probably are registered, they just don’t know automatic registration/voter registration in this country. And so we have to overcome that knowledge barrier that you can vote if you want to. Maybe it’s an excuse, but we need to get the message out that you probably are registered and you can show up with some basic identification and you can only get to vote on voting day.

The other big reason that the Canadians give for not voting is that they don’t have enough information and so that really accounts for all of us in the media. We need to figure out how to communicate the message better and one way to start getting people paying attention is through an event.

Q: I didn’t actually realize that it was a leadership sort of brainstorming session. I thought maybe they were going to have someone representing each of the parties.

A: That’s really unprecedented. All [of the provincial party leaders] agreeing to appear on the same stage to talk about an issue like this. I don’t know that it ever happened before in Canada, and it’s pretty brave of them to do it in a pre-election orbit.

Q: Do you think that events like this could sort of signal the start of more bipartisan provincial politics? And do you think that could be an element in increasing voter engagement?

A: I’m a big believer in trying to see more cooperation between the parties. But candidly, it’s really hard to get them in the same room. And it’s really, really hard to get them to agree to each other.

I hope we’ll see a formal election debate during the campaign period but it’ll be much more, I think, scripted and much more predictable in a way because they’re just basically trying to rip each other apart and unfortunately, that’s a bit of a turnoff for a lot of voters.

Q: What’s it like for you to go from writing to reading and what sort of processes do you go through on a personal level to be able to go from injecting opinion into a piece to reinvent injecting your own views into the debate and sort of giving everyone equal opportunities and equal speaking time?

A: I will take my opinions but not my biases or not…my party preferences. The beauty of [democracy] is it doesn’t have to have any partisan/coloration, whatsoever. And I think that’s why all the parties are offside. Alcohol liberalization let me have my strong view of the particular case. That issue lends itself to being — to not having a part of that map and having a passion for democracy. So I have huge opinions about democratization, but the need to do more about maybe online voting with all of these issues about the opportunities but also the perils of social media in the political process. Democracy is not as easy as it sounds, and looks easy, but it’s actually really hard to make it work, and I’m working that work.

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