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‘Free-for-all’ debates could deprive Canadian voters: U.S. debate official

WATCH: As Canada grapples with a debate over political debates, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates Mike McCurry describes the benefits of the commission.

OTTAWA —Vowing to abandon the traditional format for campaign debates, the federal Conservatives may have opened to door to a system in which Canadians won’t have the chance to see all potential prime ministers face off against each other, said the co-chair of the U.S. commission that oversees presidential debates.

“The problem with a free-for-all … is the candidates themselves might elect not to participate. They might start playing games about which debates they would do,” said Mike McCurry, who was also press secretary to Bill Clinton. “In a multi-party format like in Canada, they might say, ‘we’ll only debate with this set of parties and not that set of parties.’”

READ MORE: Election debates must be “equitable,” but anyone can host them, says CRTC

Sure, the United States and Canada have vastly different systems of government which are elected in completely different ways and serve their citizens in unique manners. But there are similarities: Both are democracies, both countries hold regular elections and, during election campaigns, potential leaders face off in debates.

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That last one, though, is up in the air now that the Conservatives have said they will not take part in the traditional televised debates organized by a three-way consortium, opting instead to entertain proposals from a variety of outlets.

An independent, non-partisan commission was established in the United States in 1987 and took over the debates the following year; ever since, the commissioner has served to ensure American voters get to see the serious candidates for president debate each other, McCurry said.

READ MORE: Conservative campaign spokesman calls media consortium ‘entitled’

“Having an independent commission that actually comes in and establishes something that puts a little more regular order into the process has been very useful to us,” McCurry said, adding that debates in the U.S. have now become more or less institutionalized.

When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives last week announced they would not take part in debates organized by the consortium of Global, CTV and CBC, critics accused them of shielding the prime minister from a majority of viewers.

Under the system traditionally used, the three broadcasters arranged one English and one French debate prior to voting day, which Conservative Party campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke said is simply unfair.

“It’s three media outlets to the exclusion of all others … and there are many credible media outlets,” he said.

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WATCH: KoryTeneycke explains why his party is saying goodbye to the traditional consortium electoral debates.

In 2011, some 10 million Canadians tuned in to the English-language debates and more than four million watched the French-language debates on Canada’s major television networks during prime time and on the web, according to a release from the consortium.

Under the proposed new system, though, there will be nothing to stop broadcasters form televising leaders’ debates under the new system, Teneycke said.

“There’s nothing preventing CBC, CTV and Global from broadcasting someone else’s debate,” he said. “If, for instance, The Globe and Mail, who’ve publicly announced that they would like to host a debate, if they were to put on a debate, what’s preventing CBC, CTV and Global from covering that debate?”

WATCH: Tom Clark discusses the Conservatives trying to take charge of election campaign debates.

Since announcing their intention to abandon the traditional debate format, the Conservatives have accepted two invitations: one from English news magazine Macleans, which is owned by Rogers, and a French debate with Quebec broadcast network TVA.

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Regardless of the fact millions of Canadians tuned into the debates during the last federal election campaign, Teneycke said the system just didn’t work, so they’re looking for a more “egalitarian” approach.

“We’re going to say goodbye to a process that has not worked particularly well, that is not particularly representative or, in my view, defensible,” he said.