Stephen, Thomas, Elizabeth, Justin . . . and me

Paul Wells on how his eccentric quest to build a better debate actually happened



During breaks at the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate on Thursday in Toronto, each leader had the right to a few minutes’ downtime with one other person. For Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, that person was Gerald Butts, his one-time McGill roommate and closest adviser. The NDP’s Tom Mulcair was visited by Jim Rutkowski, a veteran of NDP politics in British Columbia. Elizabeth May’s corner adviser was her daughter, Victoria-Cate, who has often been at her side for the decade May has been the Green party’s national leader. Perhaps I should have been less surprised that the other leader in the room, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, made a similar choice: His corner man was his son, Ben, a tall and lanky Queen’s University varsity volleyball player who has rarely been seen at Harper’s public events before now.

Ben Harper’s presence was all the more striking because, unlike May, Harper is staffed to the gills with the squadrons of advisers and strategists that attend any modern prime minister. But in the pressure of a nationally televised leaders debate, any leader might prefer the occasional note of reassurance instead of yet more urgent strategizing. So Harper and his son chatted quietly, both looking down at the floor, before J.D. Dynes, the debate broadcast’s redoubtable floor manager, cleared the room for the next phase of debate.

I had a chance to watch all this because I had the best seat in the house, as the debate’s moderator. I noticed how quiet and intimate these moments were, because it wasn’t until the debate was under way that anything about this whole made project seemed at all low-key.

When this began, I wanted to simplify political debates in Canada.

Well, that makes it sound entirely altruistic. When I started stewing about the effective television-network oligopoly on political debates in Canada, two elections ago, in 2008, I was mostly just fed up with the notion that there was only one entity in Canada with a mandate to organize debates, the so-called consortium of the big television broadcast networks. They had organized the first debate in 1968, which is online and worth watching, because it presents the spectacle of Robert Stanfield in surprisingly high spirits and wicked humour, as a steamroller named Pierre Trudeau prepares to roll right over him. And they presented every other debate among party leaders ever since.

Now, this made perfect sense in 1968, when television cameras were the size of pickup trucks and only the massed human capital of the entire Canadian television industry could crunch the challenge of getting a live TV signal out across the land. And the consortium has always been conscientious about the debates it presents. If, in recent years, some of their productions had grown clumsy and cumbersome, with panels of journalists taking turns asking questions within an increasingly ornate format, other debates, even recently, have been spry and fun, with nobody in the arena but a veteran broadcaster like Steve Paikin or Stéphan Bureau brandishing a whip and a chair.

Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives with his wife Laureen at the venue for the Maclean's national leadership debate in Toronto August 6, 2015. Canadians go to the polls on October 19, 2015.  (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives with his wife, Laureen, at the venue for the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate in Toronto on Aug. 6 (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Still, by the last couple of elections, there was no real reason why anybody else should consent to the consortium’s ownership of debates. Cost of entry for live broadcasting has collapsed, then collapsed again, until—these days—you can host a live video broadcast from the phone in your pocket. Other news organizations have questions. So do organizations that aren’t even in journalism—universities, the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, interest groups, student councils, what have you.

Miss the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate? Watch our video replay.

So, in 2008, I poked fitfully around to see whether Maclean’s wanted to organize a debate, probably in cahoots with other print outfits such as the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star. Of course, this idea only occurred to me when that year’s campaign was nearly upon us, and it went nowhere. In 2011, I tried harder, because, for a minute, in the early stretches of that campaign, it seemed Harper and Michael Ignatieff might be flirting with a one-on-one debate. When each leader started making that kind of noise, I called David Naylor, who was then the president of the University of Toronto, and asked if he’d give us a hall for a debate. He agreed immediately. Naylor was a rare university president who actively enjoyed stirring up a little trouble. But, in a series of phone calls with the Conservatives’ lead debate negotiator, Tom Long, I quickly realized Long’s mandate was to sound agreeable without ever agreeing to anything. The idea died a tidy death about four days after it began.

Fast-forward to this January, when I had coffee with a senior NDP source for a story I was writing in which unnamed senior sources would appear. As we paid our tab, I asked whether there was any truth to the silly rumour, which I believe I read in the Hill Times, that the NDP and Conservatives wanted to have many more debates than usual, to smoke out Justin Trudeau. “Well, we certainly do,” Senior Source said.

Hmm. Suddenly, there were probably going to be a larger number of debates. I was damned if they were all going to be somebody else’s. Some of the parties had a strategic interest in multiplying these confrontations, but so what; my strategic interest was to blow up the consortium oligopoly, and the risks inherent in debating would weigh as heavily on the instigators, NDP and, eventually, Conservative, as on their supposed target. And all involved were adults who could make their own decisions. In April, when the contours of the long summer pre-campaign to a fall election became clearer (but long before Harper surprised us all by starting the election in August), I asked Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Stevenson whether we could propose a debate.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and his wife Catherine Pinhas Mulcair arrive at the Maclean's National Leaders Debate. (Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and his wife Catherine Pinhas Mulcair arrive at the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate. (Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

He agreed. Crucial to the success of the whole enterprise was that neither of us gave much thought to what it would entail. When we published an editorial arguing for greater variety in leaders debates, I actually had in my mind a vague picture of four party leaders (well, three; my own boss had to talk me into inviting Elizabeth May) showing up at the Maclean’s office on Albert Street in Ottawa and plunking themselves down around a conference table. I’d put my smartphone in the centre of the table, start the recording app, and off we’d go.

A half-hour after the issue with our debate editorial hit the streets in Ottawa, Julian Morelli called me from May’s office and accepted our offer. May has, for obvious reasons, not been in the business of playing hard to get when it comes to debate invitations. But then the NDP called and expressed serious interest. The Conservatives were slightly more cagey, and more than a month passed before Trudeau’s office even acknowledged receipt of our invitation. That makes sense; Trudeau’s Liberals were still leading in the polls, and he was receiving dozens of debate invitations, so I took the radio silence from his camp as no kind of snub.

There began two series of conversations: one external, with the parties, and one internal, with my colleagues at Rogers.

The negotiations with the parties were pretty straightforward. Because we’d opted early for a simplified design—four leaders, one moderator, no live audience, no questions beamed into the studio via Skype or Snapchat—we had few details to argue about. I had hoped the leaders could sit around a table with me. Nobody liked that idea. They would stand. I didn’t want opening or closing remarks; Morelli from the Green party pushed hard for two-minute closing remarks, which is a really long time on TV. I relented. When the Liberals joined the conversation, they liked almost no part of our plan. Trudeau, who thinks of himself as a man of the people, wanted a town-hall format.

But I had three birds in the hand, including Harper, by this point, and I risked losing them if I changed the format to please Trudeau. Then where would we be? And there was something else. I’ve been interviewing politicians for 25 years, and some of the questions have been dumb, but I’ve never hit pause on the recorder, said “Excuse me,” and run out into the street to ask a passerby what my next question should be. Maybe that would be a fascinating experiment, but it wouldn’t be journalism. The sun doesn’t rise and set on journalism, but maybe it’s not an utterly defeated model yet, either. Finally, the Liberals agreed to participate.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau arrives for the leaders' debate in Toronto on Thursday Aug. 6, 2015. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau arrives for the leaders debate in Toronto on Aug. 6 (Frank Gunn/CP)

Mark Stevenson and I at Maclean’s were mightily aided by the enthusiasm of Steve Maich, a former Maclean’s writer who is now the head of Rogers Publishing. Quite soon, we found colleagues at Citytv who shared our enthusiasm for the project, and who, frankly, massively outgunned the likes of me in technical expertise.

Then things got very large, very fast. The debate project got a full-time project manager. I was assigned a full-time TV producer. Weekly conference calls grew to nearly 20 participants, then became twice-weekly calls, then became nearly constant. Facebook and Twitter came up with fun ways to augment the experience of watching the debate and interacting with the issues. Our astonishingly prolific managing editor Sue Allan and her team pushed out mass quantities of online articles and videos and pointers relating to debate topics. Rogers’ Omni television network ensured the project would be translated into Italian, Punjabi, Mandarin and Cantonese. (On the day of the debate, I met the Punjabi interpreter. She asked me why I speak so fast.)

The person in marketing who dresses everybody on Sportsnet (except, I have to assume, Don Cherry) was put in charge of finding me a proper necktie. She wanted to buy me a suit, but I showed her photos of my newest suit and she backed off, at least partly mollified. We went through seven ties that didn’t work before finding one that did. It couldn’t be red, blue, orange or green, because those are gang colours in Ottawa. We settled on purple.

For five days that spread across two weeks, I rehearsed in Toronto with fake party leaders. I’m not a TV guy, so Charmaine Wong, my patient producer, had the veteran Citytv anchor Gord Martineau give me pointers. “You’re in control,” Gord said. “Don’t let these guys walk all over you.” I practised shouting, “EXCUSE ME,” Gord Martineau-style, from the gut, in case things got out of hand. Fortunately, they didn’t.

At no point did anyone, from any political party or any corner of Rogers, try to exercise any influence over the questions I would ask. It was eerie. As the day of the debate approached, probably hundreds of Rogers employees and a quantity of money I would not care to estimate were marshalled to produce this unprecedented and, yes, very weird broadcast. Nobody tried to influence my journalistic choices. I had to ask colleagues—John Geddes, Aaron Wherry, Mark Stevenson, Alison Uncles and a few others—for suggestions. In a world where more and more journalists have their work vetted and circumscribed by their bosses, the freedom we had to make sure the Maclean’s debate would really be a Maclean’s debate was gratifying.

TORONTO, ON- August 6 - Green party Leader Elizabeth May waves to her supporters before facing off with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in the first election debate. August 6, 2015 Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star   (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May waves to her supporters before facing off with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in the first election debate, on Aug. 6 (Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

On the day of the debate, I showed up for one last round of promotional TV interviews and a final rehearsal. But something nagged at me. The ground-floor Citytv studio at Dundas Square in Toronto has an open ceiling, and sound drifts up to the second floor unimpeded. The second floor was the one reserved for Harper and the Conservative campaign staff. They’d done a site visit earlier and would return for the main event.

Were any Conservative staffers still on the second floor?

We sent someone up to check. There was one staffer, probably just guarding luggage, but I couldn’t risk rehearsing with real questions while anyone could hear. So, for the final rehearsal, I sat at the moderator’s desk and we turned on the lights and cameras while four stand-in fake leaders debated any question I could make up on the spot. Do the Avengers movies make independent film production harder to finance? Is barbecuing better than a skillet? Our fake “Stephen Harper”—Canadian Business editor James Cowan—revealed an unsettling fondness for grilled-cheese sandwiches made with mayonnaise instead of butter. The other leaders tore that notion apart as if it were a new tax benefit. It actually helped everyone unwind before the debate.

You’re a better judge than I of how it all worked out. I found the four leaders to be genuinely accommodating, willing to let their colleagues talk; willing to take direction, interruption and hard questions from the moderator. I think we confirmed what nobody should ever doubt: that substantive debate about real issues can make for compelling viewing. The traffic on our website and Twitter and Facebook suggests the whole country took notice. We showed that there’s another way to do these things. I won’t quit my day job. The campaign continues. Many more surprises lie ahead. Count on it.

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