Why Canada needs more election debates

Editorial: It’s time for civic-minded organizations to start proposing all kinds of debates. Maclean’s would be happy to host the first one.

Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

Listen to Paul Wells explain why we’re calling for more debates—and why we’d be happy to take charge on this—on our politics podcast, Maclean’s On the Hill. Subscribe to our weekly podcasts as well as Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

Scarcity causes conflict. The October federal election is half a year away and already the feuding over televised leaders’ debates has begun. Should Green Party Leader Elizabeth May be invited? The Conservatives don’t want her there, claiming she is a Liberal in disguise. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, is eager to have May show up. There’s precedent both ways: The Greens had an incumbent MP in 2008, so May took part in the leaders’ debates. They didn’t in 2011, so she didn’t.

But what about the Bloc Québécois, whose leader isn’t an MP? What about Forces et Démocratie, whose two MPs are almost the only evidence of the group’s existence? It’s hard to believe we’re going to spend six months arguing about this.

But that’s just it. “We” don’t get to hash it out: the leaders of the big national parties do, in cahoots with executives from a consortium of television broadcasters. The consortium decides whom to invite. The consortium sets the venue and date of the debates. There are only ever two debates, one in English and one in French. They are moderated by broadcast journalists. They feature inscrutably different rules each time around—the leaders stand or sit, they speak in turn or talk over one another, they concentrate on memorizing the names of the “ordinary people” chosen by the networks to ask their questions from far away, via video. Or at least they did in 2011. Maybe it’ll be different this time. Depends how the broadcast consortium feels.

Related reading: Election 2015: No easy path to victory

None of this makes sense. Everyone in Canada has a stake in a federal election, and while we know some of the people who work in television and they’re nice people, there’s no reason they should have a monopoly over the design of leaders’ debates, the subjects addressed or the leaders invited.

So let’s bust the broadcast consortium’s monopoly.

It feels kind of wicked even to suggest it, doesn’t it? And yet there’s precedent. In 1984 the National Action Committee on the Status of Women organized a debate on women’s issues in Toronto. Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent all showed up, just as they had done for the two debates organized by the broadcast consortium. Four networks carried the NAC debate live. It didn’t hurt a bit. That extra chance to see the major party leaders in action, in what turned out to be a momentous election year, probably helped the voters choose. It would be a shame if it never happened again.

Party leaders always give two reasons to explain why there are only two debates: First, in a five-week campaign there’s no time for anything else; and second, “it’s in the hands of the consortium.” The second is a chant, not a reason. As for the first, well, everyone knows this campaign won’t be only five weeks long. With the fixed election date set for this Oct. 19, the campaign has been under way since autumn, and will start in earnest as soon as the House of Commons rises for the summer, probably in June.

If we’re stuck, as a nation, with a four-month campaign, we might as well benefit from it. It’s time for civic-minded organizations to start proposing all kinds of election debates. Some could be free-for-alls, with the leaders of all six (!) parties currently represented in the House. Some could be streamlined, with only the big three: Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. Some could be one-on-one confrontations between, say, Harper and Trudeau, Trudeau and Mulcair. Debates don’t even have to focus narrowly on leaders: regional champions could duke it out in Halifax or Kelowna, or finance critics could discuss the economy.

Maclean’s is happy to get the ball rolling. We will be happy to host a debate, in English, anytime after June 15, with the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic and Green parties. We’ll carry a video feed on our website; any broadcaster who wants the signal is free to carry it live too. A Maclean’s journalist will moderate, and have a mandate to push back with follow-up questions to leaders who don’t give clear or detailed answers the first time they’re asked.

We won’t be surprised if not every leader accepts. The Conservatives and NDP have made no secret of their eagerness to draw Trudeau into as many debates as possible, in hopes of rattling him in front of a national audience. Harper seemed interested in debating Michael Ignatieff one-on-one in 2011, then wouldn’t let himself be pinned down on details. (We know. We tried.) But now the question is put, and voters will make their own judgments about leaders who talk a good game on democracy but are leery about getting into the arena.

Don’t like our proposed debate format? Come up with your own. There’s no reason to be shy. Universities, community colleges, libraries and community service organizations have as much right to organize debates as anyone else. Let’s put our leaders on the spot.


Why Canada needs more election debates

  1. I would not invite leaders of any Separatist Party that have a stated policy to separate from Canada.
    This is the Federal election for united Canada.
    Green Party should participate in discussions because they have candidates running in every Province, they are not separatists and it is the only Party that is deeply concerned about Climate Change and environmental issues.

  2. “A Maclean’s journalist will moderate, and have a mandate to push back with follow-up questions to leaders who don’t give clear or detailed answers the first time they’re asked.”

    Which journalist?

    AFAIAC, Wells is the only possible choice. The rest of you are too partisan. Aaron Wherry moderating a debate? No way Harper shows up to that; nor should he.

  3. We are electing a prime minister, not a debater.

    I’d much rather the parties put out detailed treatises defending and justifying their policies. The media don’t ask the real questions. The real questions don’t get asked in debates.

    All of politics is mostly faux theatre staged by the elites and their media friends to distract the masses.

    And here we have, one of the government-protected-and-subsidized media elites (Rogers) asking for more faux theatre.

  4. We do not necessarily need more political debates; what we need is open transparent discourse from all citizens without fear of consequences. Tens of thousands of civil servants are muzzled; many hundreds of thousands of others are too. A lot hide behind fake names and take pot shots from their computer. Many internet frauds represent hidden groups. There is a politically correct mobilization of bias in this country where people do not have the guts to address sacred cows and elephants in the room. That is the real problem. A lot of straw men and red hearings get danced around. Very few times if ever is a spade called a spade or will some politician sign a contract.

  5. The Conservatives , do not want Elizabeth May any where near the House , for any debate, because she is very transparent, and tells it like it is , with no hidden agenda like the others , example ( HARPER, and his GOONS ) They are afraid of her truths, , She is a dedicated member of Parliament, for the People, for Canada.

  6. I’m happy Romney and Obama had a good debate for the ages. The election debates are always the best. I’d appreciate more, short if necessary, and Ministers too.
    Skimmed the Budget a bit. I s something for everyone so is difficult to assess. I get why subsidizing REEs, as China had 90% and wasn’t exporting much last I checked. Question is, who to sell to? The Chromium subsidy is just an aerospace subsidy designed to get some mine worker votes. The accelerated depreciation is no good under low dollar. Last I checked, Germany was the best tool and die machine manufacturer. We would want to buy these when demand is strong. A retraining subsidy and refinery subsidy makes sense for petro. The $2.3 million procurement consulting annual subsidy reflects nothing but failed F-35 love (I like Orion). It would’ve been better to have appointed aerospace or defense experts to the Senate and have the Senate issue reports. Cutting the Coast Guard before an oil spill was bad, but we’ve come a long way: my old dealer used to routinely cover up refinery spills back in the day.
    I’m just learning the confusing paradoxes of ship propulsion: NG vs diesel. The latest starshade news is to use gossamer-making “spider robots” to assemble the occulter (they pretty flower petals that block out a star’s light). They said even with mountains, their geography more conducive to tyranny.

  7. I’m very much in favour of more debates. Lot’s more. With follow-up panels of subject matter experts commenting on the content from debates completed. As well as wide-scope debates, I’d like to see narrow scope debates on specific issues, for example climate change, healthcare, public transportation, city infrastructure, women’s issues, etc.
    I also want ALL the federal party leaders invited, including the Greens, I want transparent rules, including no talking over, and a moderator that keeps order so it’s not a free-for-all yapping contest. And I would like a moderator who challenges speakers who merely dish out generalities and empty platitudes.

  8. As well as more debates, I’d like informed commentary on debate results. However, that commentary should avoid discussions regarding who “won” the debate, who looked good, who stumbled or made a gaff, and similar unsophisticated blathering. These debates should not be considered blood sport. They are not games. The issues are too serious for that and I would expect the media to make that clear in terms of the rules, subject matter and post event commentary.

  9. -A one hour TV forum for each leader-

    The current format of televised electoral debates is good theater, where the politician gives and takes jabs, attempting to make points about what that they think will influence the voter’s decision.

    But is the voter receiving enough information?

    In the U.S.A., the respected policy programs on C-SPAN give viewers an in-depth look about the people they interview.

    As the leaders primarily engage in confrontational politics, it’s difficult to consider that such a forum would interest Canadians. But, with the world situation the way it is, we need more thought provoking discussion instead of verbal fisticuffs.

    As an interested citizen I want to listen to an in-depth, intellectual conversation with the man or woman who is running so that I can gain a deeper understanding of their fundamental beliefs and passions. There needs to be a more informational forum that allows each politician to expand on their policies. Rather than one moderator there could be specialists in different subject matters.

    A format of a one-hour-televised-forum on one leader would allow well-informed moderators to introduce new topics in a non-aggressive manner. Mulcair, Trudeau, Harper and May would have enough time to give their personal perspective on substantive topics that are of concern to Canadians.

    This format would enable Canadians to listen to insightful dialogue from those aspiring to lead our country for the next four years.

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