How to make election debates better, Part 2

Debates about debates are a great Canadian pastime. So let’s talk about who should be up on that stage and who shouldn’t
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 21, 2020
The English-language federal-leaders’ debate was held in Gatineau, Quebec, on October 7, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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This is the second instalment of a two-part series looking at what goes into making a successful election debate. Read Part 1 here.

One of the thorniest problems the Leaders’ Debates Commission had to resolve before last October’s extravaganza was, who’s allowed in to this exclusive party?

Yes, figuring out the best format to encourage the most engaging exchanges among the leaders is crucially important. But determining who gets to participate raises a ton of questions about democracy, fairness, access, and whether newer political voices ought to play by the same rules as parties that have been around since Confederation.

This isn’t a new problem. At the first televised leaders’ debate, in 1968, tough decisions had to be made about which parties to invite. The Liberals (under Pierre Trudeau) and the Progressive Conservatives (under Robert Stanfield) were obvious choices. The New Democratic Party was only seven years old at that point and had only 21 seats in a 265-seat Parliament. And yet the NDP’s leader Tommy Douglas was given equal billing.

Not so for the leader of the Ralliement des créditistes (the Quebec-based Social Credit party), which had only nine seats going into that election. Its leader, Réal Caouette, was permitted to join the debate only after the other leaders had already been onstage for 80 minutes.

In the intervening half-century, the media consortium that produced the leaders’ debates didn’t establish any objective criteria to determine participation. Every election, a handful of broadcasting executives would decide who was in and who was out, and the process often seemed completely arbitrary.

So one of the things that the official commission tried to do before the 2019 debate was establish hard and fast criteria. If you met the criteria, you were in. If you didn’t, tough luck.

But, in order to establish those criteria, the commission (ably led by former governor general David Johnston) had to answer one essential question: What was the purpose of the leaders’ debate? Was it to figure out who should be the country’s next prime minister? Or was it about listening to numerous parties weigh in on some of the most compelling issues of the day?  

Ultimately, the commission erred on the side of more accessibility and a lower bar for entry. So, if a party had no seats in the House but was running candidates in 90 per cent of the country’s ridings and could demonstrate (through polling) that it had a “real possibility” of electing someone, the leader was invited. That’s how the Green party’s Elizabeth May and the People’s party’s Maxime Bernier made the cut.

The commission reasonably concluded that, if the leaders’ debate was just about choosing a prime minister, then there’d be no point in inviting anyone other than the Liberal or Conservative leaders. After all, every single one of Canada’s 43 elections has resulted in a Liberal or Conservative prime minister. So the bar had to be lower than that. Given the criteria the commission settled on, the English-language debate ended up having an unprecedented six leaders participating: Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh, Yves-Francois Blanchet, May, and Bernier.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many observers found that situation too chaotic. And in its quest for more fairness and equity for smaller parties, the commission perhaps inadvertently deprived Canadians of seeing the two men who had the clearest shot at prime minister have much on-screen time together.

Last week in Ottawa, Johnston convened an advisory panel of interested observers (academics, think-tank experts, journalists) to get feedback on the 2019 debate and to see whether any changes ought to be made to the rules in time for the next election. (Full disclosure: I was invited to attend, having moderated a mix of seven federal- and provincial-election debates over the past 15 years. I have permission from the commission to share some of the comments made in this behind-closed-doors get-together, provided I don’t reveal who said what.)

Ultimately, if there’s value in having more voices on the debate stage, should the commission change the rules, which, at the moment, treat every party the same?

In the United States, the Democratic presidential-primary debates currently feature as many as 10 candidates, but the party resolved to favour the more popular candidates over those with lower polling numbers. That’s why Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg are at centre stage, while the lower-polling candidates are closer to the wings and get fewer questions from the moderators.

Is that something we could do here — put the Liberals and Conservatives in the middle and the smaller parties on the fringes? Could the moderators give the Liberal and Conservative leaders more questions? Or would that offend our Canadian sense of fair play?  Could we revert to the rules used in 1968 — maybe have the first hour be between the Liberal and Conservative leaders only, then add the other four parties for the second hour?

These are the hard questions the debate commission has to resolve, and you can be sure that, regardless of what it decides, some of the parties will squawk.

“Having more parties is great,” one participant opined. “But equivalency isn’t. The smaller parties aren’t entitled to equal time.”

In the U.S., its commission long ago determined that presidential debates would be between only the Republican and Democratic nominees, unless a third party had achieved significant support in recent polls (that number was generally thought to be 15 per cent). I can recall that happening only twice in my lifetime: in 1980, with independent John Anderson, and in 1992, with businessman Ross Perot.

One thing seems clear: there is no appetite among the Canadian broadcast networks or the political parties for an “A” debate with only the prime contenders and a “B” debate for the also-rans.

If we raise the bar for participation, how high should it go? Some in our debate post-mortem suggested that only parties officially constituted in the House of Commons (in other words, with a minimum of 12 seats) ought to be included in future debates. Or perhaps only those that had achieved at least 10 per cent of the total vote in the previous election. Either way, that would have excluded both the Greens and the People’s party.

Regardless, the commission very much wants to establish criteria that aren’t arbitrary, that would inspire as much public buy-in as possible, and that could be laid out in black and white in plenty of time for the next leaders’ debate, so that the parties would well understand the hill they’ll have to climb.

Our group of observers also agreed unanimously that the debates commission, and not Parliament, should establish these rules. There are simply too many built-in conflicts of interest to let the parties do it. Johnston’s commission is seen as having no axe to grind.

“If you want to avoid lawsuits, make the criteria airtight,” one panelist observed. “And tell them, ‘Achieve these criteria by such-and-such a date, and you’re in. Don’t, and you’re out.’”

Sounds simple. But it sure isn’t.

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