The debate about debates is debatable

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National debates need competing viewpoints. This is really the only time when ordinary Canadians get an insider’s glimpse at what makes political parties tick. You don’t have to agree with any of them.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 23, 2019.

OTTAWA—The debate about the debates is debatable.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was criticized for not attending the first televised debate organized by Maclean’s magazine and CityTV.

He will face more criticism next week as a likely no-show at the Munk Debates on Foreign Policy Oct. 1 in Toronto.

Trudeau’s explanation is that he is attending three debates, including two organized by a national commission established to manage fair and open televised debates.

The Leaders’ Debates Commission was under attack last week for allowing People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier to join the official debates on Oct. 7 in English and Oct. 10 in French.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, reacting to the flip-flop by the commission headed by former governor general David Johnston, issued a statement attacking “Trudeau’s hand-picked debate panel.” New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh decried the decision, disagreeing with People’e Party views that, “promote an ideology of hate.”

Scheer neglected to mention that former prime minister Stephen Harper named the commission head governor general. At the time of Johnston’s debate appointment, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called the decision “inspired” and lauded the fact that transparent and open criteria would decidedly ensure her presence.

After being denied debate participation in 1988, the Green Party unsuccessfully sued the previous broadcast consortium.

This first attempt to have an independent body set the rules for political debates is certainly not perfect. But it is better than what happened in the 2015 election.

If the Conservatives have anyone to blame about the new format, they need to look no further than their recent leader.

Up until Stephen Harper became prime minister, a broadcast consortium was responsible for ensuring nationally televised debates in both official languages. Established in 1968, the process worked reasonably well for the major parties until, in 2015, Harper refused to participate.

Instead, he joined as many as five independent debates, with little apparent criteria for who organized the events and what was debated.

With the boutique debate strategy, audience participation numbers plummeted. Rogers Media reported an average audience of 1.5 million for the Maclean’s English-language debate. The previous consortium debate surpassed 10 million viewers. The appointment of a former governor general signalled this would not be a partisan effort. And the criteria for debate participation, included in the terms of reference, guaranteed that smaller parties like the Greens would not have to sue to be heard.

The new process ensures broader participation because one of the three criteria is that any party receiving four per cent of the vote in the previous general election is invited. The third criterion, and the one the commission underscored in allowing Bernier in, was that his party has a reasonable chance of winning some seats in the upcoming election.

Those who organized 2015 debates were invited to participate in the Leaders Debate Commission organization. Some refused, launching social media campaigns to convince Trudeau to change his mind and join their separate broadcast efforts.

As it turned out, Trudeau’s absence from the first debate may have played in his favour. The Green and New Democratic parties primarily focused their attacks on Scheer, who appeared defensive and unfriendly.

Trudeau’s absence from next week’s Munk Debate is easier to explain.

No doubt, the admission of Bernier into the debates will change the dynamics. Not only will Canadians see different views on the left of the political spectrum. They will also see real fractures on the right. Much of what Bernier has to say will not be supported by the majority of Canadians.

Bernier’s anti-immigrant message is no doubt going to raise some hackles. But the bottom line is, if an election period is not a good time to discuss different viewpoints on policy, there is no good time.

Former prime minister Kim Campbell announced at the beginning of the 1984 campaign that an election was no time to discuss policy. She ended up going down in flames, with only two members of the Progressive Conservative party left in Parliament after her defeat.

National debates need competing viewpoints. This is really the only time when ordinary Canadians get an insider’s glimpse at what makes political parties tick.

You don’t have to agree with any of them.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.