Why can’t we make room for policy-driven debates during our election campaigns?

The first Leaders’ Debate took place on UTV during the week. It was a relatively tame affair, and Alan provided some notes and analysis from the hour long discussion on here.

Yet what was glaringly absent, once again, from an election campaign discussion and debate here was any sense that our political leaderships should be held to account for their respective positions on substantive policy matters that impact on our lives every day.

I’m far from naive, and understand completely as to why we vote with constitutional, identity and conflict legacy issues to the forefront of our collective minds, but I still do not think that it is too much to ask for political leaders to be challenged to produce and articulate coherent policies on the plethora of issues from education to health, economy, agriculture and transport that will dominate their daily agendas when assuming their roles as elected legislators in the Assembly and Executive.

An hour long discussion might not allow for each leader to be grilled in a substantive manner on their policies beyond simply the Irish language, Brexit and RHI issues dominating this campaign, but that should not mean the parties escape being challenged over their positions on such policy areas.

My own professional background is in education.

At present, industrial action is having a serious impact upon how schools operate on a day-to-day basis. That industrial action is primarily a result of teachers reacting to the Education Minister’s (Peter Weir) failure to provide them with a pay rise for 2015/16. The union representing principals and head teachers, NAHT, announced this week that it is to ballot on following the other teaching unions in commencing industrial action.

I would like to hear the different political parties’ positions on the industrial action and how they would seek to resolve it. Do they believe the teachers are justified, or is there merit to the position being adopted by the Minister?

Beyond that, there remains a large number of significant education-based policy matters that could be discussed- and that’s quite apart from academic selection at age eleven, which always gets trotted out for a quick one line comment that too many politicians seem to believe will suffice to cover them with the electorate on all matters pertaining to education.

How about actual strategies to develop shared education in a meaningful manner?

What about their different ideas and strategies to tackle educational underachievement?

Do we need to look at the issue of school transport again in a system defined by choice which has obvious cost implications?

Questions relating to the promotion of Irish medium and integrated education could be asked and discussed, ideas for the new Controlled Sector Support Council explored and strategies to increase the levels of children continuing to HE/FE outlined.

These questions relate to one significant area of public policy, but similar stand alone 30/60-minute discussions could be had over the breadth of issues relating to health, transport, environment and the economy.

There is no reason why policy-specific debates and discussions can not be facilitated by the media in a way that publicly challenges the parties by holding them to account for previous actions and present stated policy positions (or the lack thereof.) Parties could nominate spokespersons to participate in such discussions so that the leaders were not having to cover all the bases. I believe this would force the parties to sharpen their performance and ensure that the electorate was more fully aware of the complementary or contrasting positions of the political parties before votes were cast. It might not alter voting intentions, but it certainly would allow for voters, interested groups and party members & representatives to provide feedback which could inform discussion within parties and help shape policy matters.

Furthermore, identifying a unity of purpose with regard to the substantive policies of political parties across the constitutional divide is more likely to advance a voting preference pact culture in the short to medium term then the type of off the cuff initiative launched by Mike Nesbitt which seems to have gotten him into such difficulties with many in his own party.