PUBLIC debates between candidates for political office are a tradition dating back to antiquity. In modern times these debates have become increasingly accessible to the public as communications technology has improved.
Gone are the days when the public would have to be present in the location of the debate to hear the verbal jousting. In the past, the locations for hearing such debates were limited in size, eg the public gallery in Parliament.
Debates have many advantages, among them the ability of the audience to instantly compare the opposing views of candidates and to evaluate the contenders when they are live and direct, without the aid of scripts and professional editing.
Public debates have been said to influence public opinion and voting decisions, and therefore politicians take them very seriously. The perception in the public's mind of a win can boost the campaign of an engaging and convincing debater. Conversely, the perceived loser can slip in the polls.
Perversely, a candidate can be seen to win a debate, but not gain, and even lose support. For example, in the 2000 US presidential election debate, Vice-President Al Gore — clearly more knowledge than the hapless Mr George W Bush — gained nothing because the audience empathised with the loser, Mr Bush.
Knowing all the pluses and pitfalls of public debates, candidates who fear that they will not perform convincingly try to avoid those discussions.
Some candidates are better at live public debates than others, and hence the formulation and negotiation of elaborate rules governing these events such as venue, length of debate, types of questions, subjects to be covered, choice of interviewer, and so on.
Given that the rules of engagement can be negotiated in detail, we regard politicians who duck public debates as those who are not confident of their command of public policy issues and unsure of their ability to speak without a text. More often than not, such individuals are easily intimidated.
The question therefore, is how can they expect to carry out the duties of head of government?
We are disappointed with the recent decision in two Caribbean states for leaders not to engage in public political debates. First, that of the Electoral Commission of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), in response to Mr Audley Shaw's stated willingness to engage JLP Leader Mr Andrew Holness before the JLP leadership election.
Second, Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar's refusal to debate leaders of the main political parties in preparation for local government elections scheduled for October 21.
In the case of the JLP, it is either that Mr Holness fears a public debate, or worse, that the JLP does not think it can withstand the public being aware of its internal differences.
The public, we believe, is entitled to hear and see debates between persons who aspire to lead any democratic country, as that kind of discussion will help voters make informed decisions.