Televised election debates are important – but could be better

This is an excerpt from the Minority Report, a weekly newsletter on federal politics. If you haven’t registered yet, you can do so by clicking here.

Providing space for good, healthy political debate on a national stage seems particularly important now. But we’ve seen how easily attempts to do that can get lost, as evidenced this week by a enigmatic debate over conservative leadership and as explained in detail in a new report from the Federal Leaders Debate Commission.

The Debate Commission, created as an independent federal body by the liberal government in 2018, was born out of concern that the traditional nationally broadcast electoral debates of previous years were no longer guaranteed.

In 2015, Stephen Harper overturned the traditional system by bypassing the consortium of broadcast networks (including CBC) to participate in debates staged by other institutions. Given that Harper was the incumbent, the other party leaders felt compelled to follow. The outcome may have been more mixed, but Harper’s move demonstrated how the debate schedule could be shaped by political interests. Without the involvement of the major networks, the audience also suffered.

With the Commission leading the 2019 election, the main debate in English was given to a consortium of major television networks (including CBC) and watched by 14.2 million Canadians. By comparison, the most-watched debate in 2015, staged by Maclean’s (where the writer worked at the time), was watched by 4.3 million people.

During last year’s campaign, viewership dropped to 10.3 million — which may reflect a general “lack of interest” in last fall’s election, the Commission speculated in the post-mortem report released this week.

But the biggest concern was how last year’s debates were conducted.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, left, and then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer participate in the French-language debate of federal leaders in Gatineau, Que. on Thursday, October 10, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Many journalists, little debate

“There is widespread agreement that the 2021 debates were not as good as they should have been at informing voters about party policies,” the Commission’s report acknowledged.

“Stakeholders we consulted and published reviews criticized the format for being confusing, restrictive and not allowing enough time for leaders to express themselves or engage in meaningful exchanges. The consensus was that there were too many journalists on stage. questioning by the moderator and journalists limited the leaders’ ability to air their positions.”

The Commission doesn’t just relay the negative criticism – it also quantifies the anguished sentiment of the 2021 debates. In the two-hour period, the Commission found, there were 45 questions asked of party leaders in 2021. In comparison, only eight questions were asked during the debate in 2008.

WATCH | Conservative leadership candidates fight in the first and only official debate in English:

Conservative leadership candidates fight in the first and only official debate in English

May 12, 2022 – Lisa Raitt, Michele Cadario and Brian Topp react to the CCP debate. Finnish charge d’affaires Kaisa Heikkilä on Finland’s decision to join NATO and Queen’s Park reporters Jessica Smith Cross and Sabrina Nanji detail the latest news about the Ontario campaign. In addition, the Energy Panel weighs in on Pierre Poilievre’s call to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.

Journalists naturally want to hold political leaders accountable and demand clarity and honesty. These are valuable impulses – and the campaign’s biggest stage provides a tempting moment to chase these things.

In recent years, the media has also placed greater emphasis on fact-checking and spreading lies and misinformation, which can only increase the desire to tightly control the debate stage.

But the unique value of a nationally televised leaders’ debate is the “debate” part.

Most leaders already attend regular press conferences with reporters during a campaign. Any number of reports may be written or transmitted to clarify facts or reveal untruths. A televised debate, on the other hand, is the only opportunity to see and hear leaders speak at length in a forum where they can be directly tested against each other.

simple is better

After taking stock of the 2021 debates, the Commission concludes that the format needs to be simplified and that a single moderator would be preferable to the involvement of multiple journalists. To ensure better debate during the upcoming elections, the Commission recommends that authority be given to approve the format and select a moderator – in 2019 and 2021, these decisions were left to the media partners who staged the debates.

This can all seem a little mysterious. And there is some risk of exaggerating the time-honored importance of televised debates. They are often treated more like entertainment than the public policy discussions they should be. Two hours will never be enough to cover everything that must be considered when deciding the future direction of the country.

But David Johnston, the former governor-general who heads the Commission, is not wrong when he emphasizes the preface to last week’s report that televised debates can be an important part of a healthy democracy.

“In an age of misinformation, audience fragmentation and polarization of public opinion, leaders’ debates produce an authentic record of party positions that citizens can trust and return to again and again,” wrote Johnston, who moderated federal debates in 1979 and 1984. “Well done, leaders’ debates are a public trust which, in turn, can help build trust.”

On the other hand, the recent decision by the Republican Party to withdraw from the United States presidential debate committee seems more like evidence that American democracy is crumbling.

In the compartmentalized and personalized era of social media, the communal exercise of good, credible, nationally televised debate likely has real value. And for the purpose of staging a good and useful debate, we could benefit from fewer props and speakers and more space for conversations between the people who would lead the country at this crucial moment.

WATCH | Consequences of the debate on conservative leadership:

Consequences of the Conservative Leadership Debate | In cause

At Issue speakers share their takeaways from this week’s conservative leadership debate and what it all means for the race ahead. In addition, the panel discusses whether candidates were able to reach Canadians inside and outside the party.

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