The nu­ances of or­ga­niz­ing a de­bate

You’d think putting to­gether a tele­vised fo­rum would be easy; You’d be wrong

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - GE­OF­FREY STEVENS Cam­bridge res­i­dent Ge­of­frey Stevens, an au­thor and former Ot­tawa colum­nist and man­ag­ing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Guelph. His col­umn ap­pears Tues­days. He we

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.

Sim­ple?

Hah!

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.

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