23 Larry O’Brien clones

Touted futuristically as ‘Debate 2.0’, the latest mayoral contest delivered with its use of Twitter, YouTube, online live video and the threat of 23 Larry O’Brien clones.

However, despite the new format, the same old agendas were on display.

The incumbent mayor Larry O’Brien continued to refer to Lansdowne or the new conference centre at every opportunity. Candidate Andy Haydon continued to promote bus over light transit. Jim Watson continued to criticize O’Brien’s “zero means zero” policy and “one mayor, one vote” which had prompted his remark about clones. Clive Doucet left the debate part way through, albeit this time for a gate crashing Jane Scharf. In other words, business as usual.

Tuesday night’s debate, broadcast live from the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage via television and the internet, was the brainchild of François Levesque. As part-time editor of the Ottawa blog Apt613, he wanted to involve youth more in municipal issues.

Levesque stated that “it seems like the 18-35 range seems more apathetic and seems to be disengaged from the political process. So using social media tools we’re hoping to use the language that they use and re-engage them in the political process.”

Mayoral candidate Charlie Taylor added “I understand why the apathy exists. The citizens of Ottawa are not happy with the four choices that are offered right now. If good quality, new candidates don’t stand a chance, then why wouldn’t you be cynical? If you’re cynical, why wouldn’t you become apathetic?”

The debate’s two central themes focusing on youth and social media, convinced Levesque’s regular employer, the Institute on Governance, to get involved and help organize it.

The debate was divided into sections that addressed transit, the environment, governance, and art and culture. The four candidates were asked questions on each section in turn. Each question alternately came from Twitter, YouTube or the 100-strong audience.

This open, interactive format was in stark comparison with the last mayoral debate in September. Hosted by the Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group, the candidates were allowed to talk at length and on familiar issues. The ‘Debate 2.0’ format only allowed 45 seconds per question, per candidate, enforcing a necessity for brief responses. The new format also addressed different topics such as recycling, GPS on buses for iPhone applications and the banning of bottled water at City Hall.

However, despite the new image, there were still critics of both formats. As with the previous debate, criticism was leveled at the exclusion of the other mayoral candidates.

Taylor stated “I understand the dilemma of the debate organizers. You can’t have a functional debate with 20 candidates. That said, there aren’t 20 serious candidates running in this election. The criterion that they use, which seems to be that you have had to have held municipal office, perpetuates the oligarchy.”

Jane Scharf, shortly before storming the live broadcast, added “it’s not fair and reasonable to include only four candidates. Even if they can’t possibly accommodate more than four, then why don’t they pull lots?”

Amanda Watson, a University of Ottawa student attending the event, was more understanding. With reference to the absence of female candidates present, Watson stated how her and her friend “were criticizing the demographic that was represented, but also we were sympathetic to the fact that we wanted to hear the frontrunners debate the real issues. So I think it’s a difficult conundrum.”

The mayoral elections take place on October 25th, with advanced polling stations opening on October 14th.