Which leaders should get to participate in the next election debate?

In the last English-language debate, there were six leaders on stage, oftentimes all yelling at one another. Is there a better way for next time?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 04, 2021
Party leaders participate in a federal-election debate on October 7, 2019, in Gatineau. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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Do you remember anything about the English-language leaders’ debate during the 2019 federal election?

If you do, that’s probably because you recall seeing six party leaders on stage at the same time, often yelling at and over one another in order to try to make some point.

Is there a better way to stage these debates? Do we really need every party leader up there at once? What’s more important: Participation from multiple parties, exposing Canadians to a broad panoply of views — or special treatment for those with the best chance to win the election, so Canadians can truly judge who will likely be their next prime minister?

These are hugely difficult questions for Canada’s former governor-general, David Johnston, who was appointed by the current federal government before the last election to head up a debates commission to resolve these issues.

For 34 years, the United States has had a non-profit corporation (established by the two main parties) overseeing all aspects of presidential debates — who can participate, how many there’ll be, which formats will be employed.

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But, in Canada, we’ve never had that formal mechanism. What’s mostly happened is that the country’s major broadcasters have come together in an ad hoc way after the election’s been called. Then this media consortium negotiates with the political parties on rules, format, participants, etc. They essentially made it up as they went along. There were no formal standards in place to determine how many party leaders could participate.

Despite the lack of formal structure, the debates usually went pretty well and were watched by millions upon millions of Canadians, who somehow saw it as their civic duty to tune in, even if they’d tuned out most of the campaign before that.

The new Leaders’ Debates Commission is trying to create something more stable, with considerable buy-in from the public. It wants to put in place permanent rules and procedures so that everyone will know well in advance which parties are permitted to participate and why.

I’ve had the honour (or misfortune, depending on your point of view) of moderating three federal and four Ontario election leaders’ debates, so I was one of about 20 people invited to join a Zoom discussion on these issues last week. The “Chatham House Rule” was in effect. In other words, I can repeat what was said; I just can’t tell you who said what.

With a federal budget coming out soon and plenty of speculation about a spring election, the commission wants to be ready to go with new procedures in place, should Canadians find themselves going to the polls soon. So we broke up our discussion into two segments:

  • Which leaders should be able participate in the debates?
  • What format should be employed to ensure a vigorous but civilized discussion of the issues?

The 2019 debate featured an unprecedented six parties: the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois, Greens, and the new People’s Party of Canada. The thinking was, better to err on the side of more inclusion so that Canadians could hear even from parties with little chance of winnings seats.

There was a strong consensus among our Zoom group that the 2019 English debate hadn’t worked. One veteran among us called it “a failure,” adding, “It was awful.” But, interestingly, there wasn’t necessarily a consensus among us as to why. Some thought there had simply been too many leaders on the stage, rendering the debate unwieldy and unhelpful. They supported a higher threshold for participation.

But others said the problem hadn’t been too many participants: rather, it was a bad format and had too many moderators (we’ll pick up on this angle of the story tomorrow). They wanted Canadians to hear a wide range of views and said that — given that the two major parties (Liberals and Conservatives) are the best-funded and therefore have probably already made their best pitches to Canadians before the debate — this was a chance for the smaller parties to get some attention, too.

If a higher threshold for participation is desirable, what should it be? Should it be 5 per cent support among Canadians, and, if so, 5 per cent of the votes in the last election — or in the majority of polls leading up to the next one, to allow for some dynamism in the process? (If 5 per cent were to be the benchmark, either way, Maxime Bernier’s People’s party wouldn’t make the cut next time.)

Someone suggested there are other approaches that would both satisfy the need for broad inclusion and respect relevance. Back in 1968, the leaders of the three major parties — the Liberals’ Pierre Trudeau, the Progressive Conservatives’ Robert Stanfield, and the New Democratic Party’s Tommy Douglas — participated in the entire debate. Real Caouette, of the Ralliement Créditiste party in Quebec, had just eight seats and was invited to participate only 80 minutes in. Given the unlikelihood that the Bloc will attract many anglophone votes or that the People’s party will gain widespread support, could that process be replicated now? Why should parties with 2 per cent support and no seats get the same amount of time as those with 35 per cent support and more than 150 seats? Or would that offend Canadians’ sense of fair play?

You can see the impossibility of figuring all this out to everyone’s satisfaction. Johnston and his commission haven’t come to any conclusions yet. They’re still consulting broadly and considering numerous options.

Examples elsewhere in the world may not be that helpful. In the last Haitian election, there were six debates featuring 33 presidential candidates. In the U.S., however, the three planned debates were limited to the two front-runners, Joe Biden and Donald Trump (only two took place). In fact, it’s been extremely rare over the years to see more than two presidential candidates debating in the U.S.

What should we do in Canada? Do we prefer inclusion or relevance? Should a leader’s prospects for becoming prime minister matter? Or are we more interested in hearing a variety of views, regardless of their popularity?

Tomorrow, we’ll consider whether there are better formats available, regardless of how many leaders there are on the debate stage.

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