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CanadaVoters deserve better on leaders’ debates

10:15  11 september  2019
10:15  11 september  2019 Source:   thestar.com

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Voters deserve better on leaders’ debates© Nathan Denette Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair before a debate in 2015.

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When it comes to campaign debates, more is generally better than less. Let the leaders have it out. Let the chips fly and let the voters sort it out.

With that in mind, as both citizens and journalists we’d ideally like to see the federal party leaders take part in more than the three debates that are now scheduled for the election campaign that will officially kick off on Wednesday.

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But does Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau deserve all the criticism he’s getting for agreeing to those three and no more?

Not really.

Of course, as their opponents keep on pointing out, the Liberals are no doubt calculating that it’s to their political advantage to take part only in the debates they have agreed to — one in English and two in French.

Quelle surprise! A political party on the eve of a national campaign acting in its partisan interest. We’re shocked, shocked!

In fact, and inevitably, it has always been thus. Typically, whichever party sees itself as the frontrunner is reluctant to expose its leader to multiple debates. The challengers, meanwhile, are eager to debate anywhere, anytime. And all involved solemnly swear that they have only the public interest in mind. Only their nefarious opponents, they insist, are playing political games.

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The last time out, in 2015, it was the Harper Conservatives who sabotaged the long-established tradition of nationally televised debates in both official languages.

They refused to take part in debates organized by the “consortium” of broadcasters and opted instead to take part in a series of five events organized by various media outfits and other organizations. They calculated they could maximize their advantage by picking and choosing their spots.

Was that experience a triumph for democracy? Actually, no. Most of those debates weren’t broadcast nationally and the audience dropped by 60 per cent from the previous election in 2011, when the traditional format was followed. There were more events, in other words, but far fewer viewers.

What’s needed, at the very minimum, is a big national stage for the leaders to duke it out in front of a significant part of the electorate. So last year the Trudeau government set up a “Leaders’ Debates Commission,” chaired by former governor general David Johnston, with a mandate to organize two national debates, one in English and one in French.

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Canadian leaders ' debates are leaders ' debates televised during federal elections in Canada, made up of two debates , one in French and one in English, usually held on back-to-back nights. The first time these debates were held was during the 1968 election.

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This it did, in partnership with nine media organizations (including Torstar, owner of the Star). Those debates will held at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 7 (in English) and Oct. 10 (in French).

All the national leaders will take part, although People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier won’t be included because he didn’t meet the requirements set out by the commission.

This at least ensures there will be full-scale national debates in both official languages. It undoes the damage done four years ago when the Conservatives unilaterally ended that tradition.

But, political parties being what they are, it certainly hasn’t ended another long-established tradition — using leaders’ debates to jockey for advantage in an election campaign.

All the parties, for example, had an understanding with the Johnston’s debates commission that they would not go off on their own and take part in other events. The idea was that would simply revive the partisan squabbling over who was willing to debate who, when and where.

But as we can see, that understanding didn’t hold. All the parties are doing whatever they think will give them an edge.

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The Conservatives, NDP and Greens have agreed to have their leaders take part in two other debates, one organized by Maclean’s and Citytv and the other on foreign policy put on by the Munk Debates.

Trudeau won’t take part in those events, prompting his rivals to accuse the Liberals of ducking their democratic responsibility. But he has agreed to a second French-language debate sponsored by the private TVA network, presumably because he sees that as a way to strengthen Liberal support in Quebec.

Everyone, in other words, is acting just as you’d expect: in their own interests.

There is a way to find a better solution, one where the interests of voters, not politicians, are put first. If not for this election, then for the next.

Johnston’s debates commission was asked specifically to organize just two leaders’ debates, but he was also asked to submit a report suggesting how the process could be improved. And there’s nothing to stop him from recommending more debates — say, two in each official language.

Canada’s federal campaigns are relatively short, but five to seven weeks is certainly long enough for four nationally televised, full-scale leaders’ debates. If that became the minimum requirement set by the official debate commission it would be a lot harder for any leader to avoid showing up without paying a big political price.

Johnston would do everyone a service by raising the bar on debates. Voters deserve no less.

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