The nuances of organizing a debate
You’d think putting together a televised forum would be easy; You’d be wrong
One might think that organizing an election debate is a straightforward operation. Book a studio. Engage a non-partisan individual with a profile — perhaps a university president — to be moderator and timekeeper. Recruit two or three bigfoot journalists to ask the questions. Invite the national party leaders to show up. Let the cameras roll.
Nothing is straightforward or simple in politics at election time, as the chequered history of federal election debates attests.
It began with one debate in the 1968 election — a two-hour bilingual affair, featuring Pierre Trudeau for the Liberals, Robert Stanfield for the Progressive Conservatives and Tommy Douglas for the NDP. In a harbinger of complications to come, the organizers in 1968 wrestled with the problem of Réal Caouette, the leader of Social Credit, which mainstream politicians regarded as more of a nuisance than a national party. The bizarre solution: with 45 minutes to go, Caouette strolled on to debate as though he had been there all along.
There being no television in the Commons in those days to let Canadians see their leaders in live verbal combat, that first debate was a ratings success. An estimated 14 million Canadians, of a potential audience of roughly 20 million, tuned in.
However, the incumbent Liberals chose not to run the risks inherent in TV debates, and there were none in the next two elections, in 1972 and 1974. There was one debate, in English only, in 1979, among the leaders of the three principal parties, but Social Credit was excluded.
There were no debates in the 1980 election, but three (English, French and bilingual) in 1984. There were two (English and French) in each of the next five elections (1988, 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2004), then four in 2006. The number dropped back to two in 2008, but that was the election when Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, was finally permitted to join the debating club.
May’s breakthrough was shortlived. She was excluded again in 2011.
In the most recent election, 2015, the media consortium that had organized debates in previous elections cancelled its English and French debates when Stephen Harper, the prime minister, refused to participate and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, the opposition leader, said he would not debate if Harper was not there.
In the end, various organizations sponsored a total of five debates on assorted topics. It was all a bit chaotic. The broadcasts reached many fewer voters, and the quality of the debates ranged from adequate to mediocre. Elizabeth May was allowed to participate in two of the five debates.
In an attempt to establish order to the process, the Justin Trudeau government created an independent commission — headed by former governor general David Johnston — to organize and oversee election debates.
This commission will stage two of them this fall, one in each language.
Nothing is straightforward or simple in politics at election time, as the chequered history of federal election debates attests
If any leader declines to participate, the debate will go ahead without that leader.
The thorniest issue was to determine which among the dozen or more party leaders will be eligible to participate. The formula chosen was actually proposed by May at a November 2017 meeting of the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs when it was considering the government plan.
To be eligible, a party must pass two of three tests: have elected at least one MP under its banner in the previous Parliament; be contesting at least 90 per cent of ridings nationwide; and have received at least four per cent of the national popular vote in the previous election.
May is in, while Maxime Bernier, leader of the fledgling People’s Party of Canada, is out. The party’s only MP, he was elected as a Conservative, not as a PPC candidate, and the new party cannot yet demonstrate public support. At the same time, the rules preserve the fiction that the Bloc Québécois is a national party. It has MPs (all from Quebec), and it got 4.7 per cent of the popular vote in 2015.