How to make election debates better, Part 1 

ANALYSIS: Last week, members of the debate commission and an advisory committee met to discuss how the federal English-language debate went. The verdict? Not very well
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 20, 2020
Former governor general David Johnston appears before a Commons committee reviewing his nomination as debates commissioner in Ottawa in November 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)



This is the first instalment of a two-part series looking at what goes into making a successful election debate. Read Part 2 here.

Did you watch the leaders’ debate during the last federal-election campaign? If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you did, because more Canadians watched the debate with Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh, Yves-Francois Blanchet, Elizabeth May, and Maxime Bernier than have watched any other leaders’ debate in our country’s history.

It speaks well of Canadians that, while they may not follow every nuance of the election campaign, they do at least see it as their civic duty to tune in to the leaders’ debate. Nearly 14 million Canadians did — an astonishingly huge chunk of the electorate.

And make no mistake, it is a television experience. Nearly 10 million people who took in the debate watched it on television. Nearly 3 million watched it online, while almost another million listened on the radio, according to the broadcasters who produced the debate.

For the first time ever, an independent commission created by the federal government was tasked with doing something a consortium of media outlets had formerly done on its own — namely, set the rules, pick the moderator(s), decide which party leaders could participate, and figure out what day, time, and location the debate should take place.

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Last week in Ottawa, members of the debate commission, headed by former governor general David Johnston, convened a meeting with an informal advisory committee made up of academics, political scientists, journalists, and political advisers to get feedback on how well the English-language debate had gone.

The verdict: not well.

(Full disclosure: having moderated three federal- and four Ontario-election leaders’ debates, I was invited to attend the meeting and offer suggestions. I have permission from the commission to share some details on the condition that I not disclose who said what. The commission will have a lot more to say on the topic in a soon-to-be-released post-mortem.)

The strong consensus in the room was that, when it comes to mounting these efforts, it’s better for an official, arm’s-length debate commission to be responsible rather than a consortium of media companies (which is how it was done for most of the past 50 years): media organizations and political parties have too many built-in conflicts of interest to be seen as honest brokers by the public. The major political parties want as few other parties participating, because those parties have the potential to chip away at their support. Similarly, the private broadcasters have contractual obligations to air American shows in prime time: it often seems as if their top priority is getting the thing over with so that they don’t have to pre-empt their big money-making fare.

(Private broadcasters insisted that one of the leaders’ debates I hosted air opposite the United States vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. That way, they wouldn’t have to pre-empt their regular American prime-time programming.)

The commission noted that there’s also an appetite to get some basic rules and standards in place well before the next election campaign begins, so that such things don’t have to be negotiated in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the writ period.

The elections-debate commission was appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau. But there was considerable support for the suggestion that the next commissioner be appointed by all of Parliament (not just the government), meaning that opposition leaders would have to agree with the choice. The commissioner needs not only to be totally impartial, but also to be seen as impartial by all parties and the public. For the record, no one lacked confidence in Johnston, but making the appointment absolutely airtight was seen as a way to improve things.

Next: What about the choice of moderators and their assigned responsibilities? For the first time ever, the English-language debate featured five different moderators. There was clearly no journalistic reason to have so many. Rather, the major media outlets backing the debate simply wanted to use the occasion to promote their stars. While the commission itself didn’t weigh in on the issue, there was plenty of discussion at the meeting about whether five moderators had been four (or at least three) too many.

I likened it to a baseball game in which the home-plate umpire changes every other inning. It would drive the pitchers and batters crazy. One ump might give a pitcher the high inside fastball as a strike, but not the low outside pitch. The next ump might do the opposite. The third ump might have a different strike zone altogether, giving batters an advantage by giving them the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to the debate, it’s unfair to the leaders — not to mention confusing to viewers — to have so many different moderators interpreting so differently the rules of the game.

Furthermore, there was considerable frustration in the room that the moderators hadn’t been able to more forcefully urge the leaders to answer the questions so that they wouldn’t be able just to trot out their heavily practised one-liners. We all seemed to like the idea of moderators being able to ask follow-up questions and hold the politicians’ feet to the fire.

(I have occasionally been told by debate organizers, “No follow-up questions. You’re essentially a glorified time-keeper.” That may suit the politicians’ agendas, but I doubt it works for the public.)  

Feedback suggested that the debate was informative and somewhat useful in helping viewers see the distinctions among the parties. But plenty of people also thought it was dull and that the format produced lots of quick one-liners but no substantive discussion of the issues people wanted to hear about. And there was a sense that there were barely any face-to-face encounters between the two leaders whom history suggested were the only ones likely to become prime minister: Trudeau and Scheer.    

Another issue — particularly problematic in a debate with six participants — was the amount of cross-talk among the leaders. There was far too much speaking over one another and interrupting. I can tell you, getting the leaders to quit doing that is always a herculean task for any moderator. And the leaders are trained to be on the lookout for a knockout punch coming their way. If they see it, they’re told to interrupt their opponent, lest a nice clean 20-second exchange featuring them being bested ends up on an endless loop on the next day’s newscasts. But, somehow, those constant interruptions have to be ended. The viewers just hate them.

So one of the commission’s biggest challenges will be to resolve the moderator and format problems that were so apparent in the last debate. (For the record, I think there should be a single female moderator next time: five of the six party leaders were men in the last debate, and if such an important event were to be utterly dominated by male participants, that would send a terrible message about political inclusion.)

On Tuesday, we’ll follow up on this column by dealing with perhaps the thorniest issue the commission needs to contend with: Which parties are entitled to participate in the debate, which ones aren’t, how do you develop fair criteria the parties need to meet, and is six parties too many?

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