Prime Ministerial Debates
A template for moving the process forward
by Stevenson Manners
Political watchers in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis have a proven penchant for copy-catting from the big metropolis to the north, sometimes without assessing the merits or demerits of their decisions. For instance, in recent times, the debate has been raging about term limits for the office of Prime Minister as allied to the US presidency. I stoutly disagree with that notion. With a population of 50, 000, and the recent introduction of Integrity in Public Life legislation (rightly so), in the still male-dominated domain of politics, it just got harder to find authentic talent. The United States with over 300 million can freely discard talents like Reagan and Clinton, but St. Kitts and Nevis can ill-afford in any way, shape or form to jettison its limited human resource. The electorate should be the final arbiters of term limits.
Where debates are concerned, however, I am in full support. Callers to radio talk shows and spin doctors, in their quest to join the national debate, daily drown out the voices of those who wish to gain votes and govern our country. Except in controlled forums such as on the hustings, radio and television speeches, and press conferences, we don’t often enough get to hear the unfiltered truth from our politicians. Debates with skilled moderators can provide that forum. Here’s how we can move this important mechanism so aptly used in the American democracy to fruition in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Commission on Prime Ministerial debates
An independent non-partisan body should immediately be set up to execute the debates. The Committee will comprise of three persons including the President of the Media Association, the Chairman of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and an eminent member of the Bar Association, preferably Mr. Charles Wilkin or Mr. Emile Ferdinand.
The President of the Media Association will be the lead person.
Memorandum of Understanding
The Commission should seek buy-in from both sides, and get them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. The tenets of the MOU should be released at a joint Press Conference by the persons leading the major political parties, and who can therefore emerge as Prime Minister.
Rules and Format.
Design: The debates are designed to give eligible voters a bird’s eye view of the issues on which they must decide in a national poll. The debates will be held between the dates of the declaration of the elections and polling day.
Scope: There will be three (3) debates which will focus on the most pressing issues of the day, namely:
Debate 1: the Economy & Crime.
Debate 2 – the St. Kitts –Nevis relationship
Debate 3 – Constitutional and Electoral Reform, and Integrity in Public Life
Each debate will be of 90-minutes duration, and will have a live audience with the last 30 minutes open for questions from the floor including nationals in the diaspora via the telephone.
Place: The first and third debates will be held at the Sir Cecil Jacobs Auditorium in St. Kitts and the second at the Nevis Center for the Performing Arts.
Medium: All debates will be broadcast live on television, radio and the internet.
Moderator: Debates 1 & 2 will have an impartial moderator coming from the island in which the debate is held. The third debate will have a panel of 3 journalists/moderators comprising of 1 from St. Kitts, 1 from Nevis and the other a regional journalist working in the Federation. No moderator will appear in more than one debate. There should be no gender bias in the choice of moderators.
The candidates will be seated at conference tables or at podiums with moderators appropriately placed. Each candidate will give a 5 minute opening statement explaining their take on the debate’s topic. The challenger will go first. There will be a 2 minute closing statement with the challenger going last.
Once a question is asked the candidate has 2 minutes to answer the question. After the answer the opposing candidate has 1 minute to respond and rebut his/her argument. At the moderator’s discretion the discussion of the topic may be extended by 30 seconds per candidate. Cell phones and other communication devices may not be used during the debates.
Members of the audience should be appropriately dressed and seated. Special interest groups such as students of the CFBC and Nevis Sixth Form College will be specially invited, and guaranteed seats, otherwise entrance will be allowed on a first come first serve basis. No speeches will be allowed from the audience, but interested members may be allowed a single or two-part question, or as determined by the moderator. There should be no whispering, laughing, clapping, use of electronic gadgets or other forms of distractions from the audience. Any such behaviour will result in ejection from the room.
The US presidential debates have a surprisingly short and checkered history. They date back to September 26, 1960, when Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard Nixon met in a Chicago studio in the first official debate.
No other American device has taken this long (53 years) to filter down to our islands.
Let the debates begin, and let’s have an informed electorate.
I am reminded of a quote I read recently: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”