Politics·Analysis

Televised election debates are important — but they could be better

The communal exercise of a credible and nationally televised debate likely has real value. But for the purposes of staging a good debate, we might benefit from fewer props and interveners and more room for conversation between the people who would lead the country at this pivotal time.

The Leaders' Debate Commission proposes changes for the next round of election debates

Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and then-Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole participate in a federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 9, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/Pool/Getty Images)

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Providing space for good, healthy political debate on a national stage seems particularly important right now. But we've seen how easily attempts to do so can go astray, as evidenced this week by a gimmicky Conservative leadership debate and as explained at length in a new report by 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 election debates of years past were no longer guaranteed. 

In 2015, Stephen Harper had upended the traditional system by going around the consortium of broadcast networks (including the CBC) to participate in debates staged by other institutions. Given that Harper was the incumbent, the other party leaders felt compelled to follow him. The result might have been more variety, but Harper's gambit demonstrated how the debate calendar could be shaped by political interests. Without the involvement of the major networks, viewership also suffered.

With the Commission taking the lead for the 2019 election, the main English-language debate was given to a consortium of the major television networks (including the CBC) and watched by 14.2 million Canadians. By comparison, the most-watched debate in 2015, which was staged by Maclean's (where this writer was employed at the time), was viewed by 4.3 million people.

During last year's campaign, viewership was down to 10.3 million – which might reflect a general "lack of interest" in last fall's election, the Commission speculated in the post-mortem report it released this week. 

But the bigger concern was how last year's debates were conducted.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and then-Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer take part in the the Federal leaders French language debate in Gatineau, Que. on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Too many journalists, not enough debate

"There is widespread agreement that the 2021 debates did not deliver as well as they should have on informing voters about parties' policies," the Commission's report acknowledged.

"Stakeholders we consulted and analysis that was published criticised the format as being cluttered, restrictive and not allowing enough time for leaders to express themselves or to engage in meaningful exchanges. The consensus was that there were too many journalists on stage. Moreover, the line of questioning from the moderator and journalists limited the ability of leaders to expound on their positions."

The Commission doesn't just relay the bad reviews – it also quantifies the harried feeling of the 2021 debates. In the span of two hours, the Commission found, there were 45 questions put to the party leaders in 2021. By comparison, just eight questions were posed during the debate in 2008. 

WATCH | Conservative Leadership Candidates spar in first and only official English debate:

Journalists naturally want to hold political leaders to account and demand clarity and honesty. Those are valuable impulses – and the campaign's biggest stage offers a tempting moment to pursue those things.

In recent years, media outlets have also put increased emphasis on fact-checking and calling out lies and misinformation and that might only add to the urge to tightly control the debate stage.

But the unique value of a nationally televised leaders' debate is the "debate" part. 

Most leaders already participate in regular news conferences with reporters during a campaign. Any number of reports can be written or broadcast to clarify the facts or call out untruths. A televised debate, on the other hand, is the only opportunity to see and hear the leaders speak at length in a forum where they can directly be tested by and 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 a better debate during the next election, the Commission recommends that it be given the authority to approve the format and select a moderator – in 2019 and 2021, such decisions were left to the media partners who staged the debates.

This might all seem a bit arcane. And there is some risk of overstating the hallowed importance of televised debates. They are often treated more like entertainment than the discussions of public policy that they are supposed to be. Two hours is never going to be enough anyway to cover everything that should be considered when deciding the future direction of the country. 

But David Johnston, the former governor general who leads the Commission, isn't wrong when he emphasises in the foreword to last week's report that televised debates could be an important part of a healthy democracy. 

"In an age of disinformation, fragmentation of audiences and polarisation of public opinion, leaders' debates produce an authentic record of party positions that citizens can trust and come back to repeatedly," wrote Johnston, who himself moderated federal debates in 1979 and 1984. "Done well, leaders' debates are a public trust, that in turn, can help build trust."

Conversely, the Republican party's recent decision to pull out of the United States' presidential debate commission seems like one more piece of evidence that American democracy is coming apart.

In the compartmentalised and personalised era of social media, the communal exercise of a good, credible and nationally televised debate likely has real value. And for the purposes of staging a good and useful debate, we might benefit from fewer props and interveners and more room for conversation between the people who would lead the country at this pivotal time.

WATCH | Fallout from the Conservative leadership debate:

Fallout from the Conservative leadership debate | At Issue

2 months ago
Duration 16:20
The At Issue panellists share their takeaways from this week's Conservative leadership debate and what it all means for the race ahead. Plus, the panel discusses whether candidates were able to reach Canadians inside and outside of the party.

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