Moderating #MASONvSMITH: Tales from a ring-side referee | By Elliott Tanti

I didn’t realize the commitment that I was signing up for when I agreed to moderate the second debate between Alberta’s opposition leaders, Danielle Smith and Brian Mason. I was sitting in an Internet café in Malta enjoying a local snack and beer when I received the email announcement from President of the PSUA that the NDP and Wildrose wanted to host a debate at the University of Alberta. It being early May, and the school year miles from my mind, I was eager to impress in my new role as the VP of Communications for the PSUA. My response was: “Sure! This sounds like a great opportunity to increase our visibility on campus and if you need someone to moderate, I would be more than willing!” And thus, my adventure as moderator began.

The Wanderer asked that I outline the process that I went through in preparing and eventually moderating the September 18th debate. My initial instinct was to research moderation and the roles and responsibilities associated with the position. Typically, the moderator is responsible for ensuring the fairness of the debate in a manner that both conforms to the time restrictions associated with the event and gives each debater an opportunity to advertise themselves to the audience. I also had the extra responsibility of ultimately deciding the format for the debate and providing a question on post-secondary education for the leaders.

Another feature of moderation that I became aware of early in the preparation process was the unwritten ‘norms’ that the moderator must respect in order to lend legitimacy to the debate. This included the pre-debate coin toss, the various ways to address the debaters, and outlining the format for the debate as well as the order in which primary and secondary questions are asked. Of course these norms are relatively obvious, however I wanted to make sure that they were followed perfectly throughout the entire debate.

Surprisingly, (well maybe not ‘surprisingly’) it is very difficult to find debates that were considered ‘well moderated’. Generally, the most famous and best-documented debates were those that involved famous leaders or memorable verbal battles between rivals. Because the format that I was going to be moderating only involved two leaders, I focused the majority of my attention on American presidential debates of the past as I felt they were the most likely to emulate the scenario that I would face while I was moderating. I am ashamed to say that the moderator that I most tried to emulate was not in fact a real moderator, but a fictional one from the television series The West Wing. During the seventh season, Presidential candidates Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) and Vinick (played by Alan Alda) hold debates in front of a live audience controlled by a moderator. You can see a clip from these episodes here. Obviously these events were scripted and rehearsed; however the moderator in the episodes masterfully handles two very outspoken leaders and a relatively hostile audience. I was keen to hone some of these strategies in case the debate started to get out of hand. I also wanted to be prepared should one of the leaders step away from their podium and challenge the other leader to a ‘real’ debate as happens in the dramatic West Wing Episode (of course I am joking).

My relative inexperience in this position was a cause of great self-doubt and anyone who spent anytime around me in the days leading up to the event knew that I was incredibly nervous.  I spent almost three hours in various haberdashers at Southgate Mall trying to find what I felt to be an appropriate bow tie/shirt combination. Obviously I had to look good, but not too good. I actually ended up buying three different combinations and only came to my final decision hours before the debate. Fortunately, the bow tie was a home-run.

Because there were several technical aspects of the event that needed setting up in the hours before the debate my mind was mostly distracted until the final moments leading up to the event. However, meeting with the leaders five minutes before the debate was incredibly intimidating. I don’t want to give up the trade secrets of the two leaders but it was obvious that both were in ‘game’ mode. The coin-toss was awkward and outlining the debate format (which they both knew ahead of time) was agonizing. I spoke for 99% of the two-minute period; in fact, I am pretty sure that both leaders said only ten words to me between the two of them during this time. Walking out of the back room where the leaders were preparing, I took a deep breath and honestly said to myself: “Well, that was pleasant.”

The debate itself was hell. From the moment the event began it was a constant battle to make sure that each leader stayed on topic and within their time limits. My timekeeper Alan Parish (VP of Internal Operations for the PSUA) did an excellent job keeping up with the determined time limits, however both leaders ignored him entirely. I expected that time would fly by during the debate, however because I had to be so cognizant of the time limits, it didn’t. My notes from the debate are hilariously illegible. Trying to keep track of time, what the leaders were saying and gearing up for the next topic was very challenging. At one point I began reading a question and for a panic stricken split second thought that I was reading the question that I had just asked. Fortunately, it wasn’t. As I became more comfortable with my roles as moderator I started spending less of my attention on the topics themselves and more on what was being said by the leaders. This was a mistake. At one point, I actually forgot which leader I was going to have to address the next question to. So, I guessed. I was lucky, the ghosts of politicians past were looking out for me and I guessed right.

All that said, moderating this debate was an amazing experience. Immediately after, I was unsure as to how well the event had been received however I did think that I had fulfilled my mandate as moderator in that the debate was both fair and kept to the time limit we had set. In the days following the debate, I received plenty of positive reviews from faculty, students and members of the Wildrose and NDP parties. This has been very gratifying. We had over four hundred people attend the event, the hashtag #MASONvSMITH trended Canada-wide throughout the debate and it was covered by the Edmonton Journal, CBC, Global and CTV. We increased the visibility of the PSUA and overall I felt the event was an incredible success.

Would I do it again? Yes, of course. Although it was a very difficult experience it was also enlightening and positive. I learned the importance of preparation as I felt that I could have handled any type of distraction or interruption. I also learned a valuable lesson regarding teamwork. The leadership of the PSUA comprises smart, motivated and incredibly supportive people. They were the brick and mortar of the event. The members of the PSUA leadership played an important role in the success of the event and their diligence ensured the professional implementation of the debate. I feel very privileged to be part of such an amazing leadership group.

I also want to thank my Mom, Alale, Michael, Nathaniel and Joel for each of their support. I also want to thank my Dad for providing me with some great advice and some very nice shoes for the event.


Elliott Tanti is a fourth year honours political science student at the University of Alberta. When not seen gallivanting around campus, his interests turn to local sports teams, gaming culture and matters concerning government and politics. 

Image courtesy of The Political Science Undergraduate Association


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