“Yeah, the campaign started a long time ago,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told Maclean’s in August 2014. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair agreed, a few weeks later, in his own interview with Maclean’s: “Everything that the government’s going to be doing for the next year, everything we’re going to be doing as the Opposition, has one objective in mind: forming the government.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t give us an interview last autumn, but the meticulous staging of the PM’s public appearances and the barrage of Conservative party ads on TV and radio suggest he agrees: The campaign for the October 2015 election is already on. It has been for a long time.
How should journalists respond? Some people seem to think we should stand by while party leaders campaign non-stop, because we still cling to the genteel fiction that none of it is “real” until the Prime Minister finally visits Rideau Hall to launch a formal campaign. Maclean’s disagrees. The knowledge of a fixed election date, Oct. 19, has spurred a longer campaign than Canadians are used to. We are not interested in letting the party leaders set the terms of that campaign. We have some questions for them.
On Thursday, Aug. 6, from 8 to 10 p.m. EDT, our political editor, Paul Wells, will put those questions to four national party leaders: Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau and Green Leader Elizabeth May. The format will be straightforward. All the questions will come from Maclean’s, which will not share any of them with the parties before the debate begins. In recent years, these debates have become more complex, with questions coming from ever-larger panels of moderators, and hand-picked “ordinary Canadians” standing on street corners in front of TV news cameras. To be fair, that’s certainly one way to do it. We prefer simplicity. We hope to provoke a conversation.
The Maclean’s debate will be the first in the history of Canadian elections that is not organized by several television networks pooling their resources as a consortium. It will not be the last. The consortium model made sense when broadcast technology was exotic and cost a mint. It still makes sense for the networks, but there is no need for anyone else to grant them a permanent oligopoly. Already, other news organizations—and, in the case of the Munk Debates, a different kind of organization entirely—have announced they’ll welcome leaders in debates this year, too.
Why does the Maclean’s debate stand out? For one thing, ours is the first. It marks an end to the phony-war segment of the endless 2015 campaign and launches the real conversation. (Is August too soon for a debate? On the contrary. We’d have been happy to do this in March or June. We’re not ahead of the campaign; we’re finally catching up to it.) Second, it’s the most complete debate on offer: the only English-language debate in which the leaders of the Conservative, New Democratic, Liberal and Green parties have all agreed to participate. The Conservatives have said Harper won’t participate in the network consortium debates in October. And the Globe and Mail and Munk debates have decided, for whatever reason, not to invite Elizabeth May, despite polls showing that most Canadians feel she should participate. Finally, unlike other debates devoted only to the economy or to foreign policy, ours will cover a broad range of topics, giving viewers the best understanding of leaders’ thinking across all the issues any government will face.
In an interview with Maclean’s in May, Brian Mulroney dismissed the notion that debates don’t change campaigns. “They don’t, eh? You’re looking at a guy who made it to 24 Sussex because of [televised debates],” Mulroney said. Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley “made it to the premier’s position because of television debates. So I think that the television debates in the next election may turn out to be the most important since 1984.”
Sometimes, in other election years, the stakes of the decision facing Canadians might not have seemed very high: Perhaps the times were tranquil, the results a foregone conclusion, or the differences among parties negligible. That’s obviously not the case this year. There are big questions to resolve about the role of government in the life of the nation. The race is wide open. And the parties have important business to settle among them, on their starkly divergent philosophies of government’s role. It’s a good time to have a debate. We’re looking forward to ours.