Upcoming federal election debates need to be more ‘civil’, commission says

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Televised leaders’ debates during the coming federal election campaign ought to be more accessible, more civil and more educational for voters trying to make an informed choice.

That was the advice of some 45 individuals and groups consulted by David Johnston, the former governor general who heads up Canada’s first-ever commission on leaders’ debates.

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Michel Cormier, executive director of the commission, says those consulted included academics, cultural communities, journalists, experts in civic education, debate organizers in other countries, as well as representatives of the six Canadian political parties most likely to meet the criteria required for their leaders to take part in two debates – one French, one English – prior to the Oct. 21 election.

The commission is preparing a request for proposals to produce the debates. It’s to be issued shortly, with the winner to be announced in mid-June.

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Cormier says the winner doesn’t necessarily have to be a television network; it can be a think-tank or a university or other group that is able to partner with others to ensure the debates will be as accessible and inclusive as possible, with the broadest possible reach, including through social media.

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He says the commission is taking a hands-off approach to the actual format of the debates, since that is primarily a journalistic exercise.

Nevertheless, the proposals are likely to be weighed against the advice received during the consultations.

“People hope that the exercise is more civil, that they can actually learn the parties’ positions and rate the leadership qualities of the leaders in a way that helps them make an informed choice come election day,” Cormier said in an interview.

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As well, he said people want the debates to be “more accessible to more people,” reaching voters in remote communities but also those who speak languages other than French and English or those with hearing disabilities.

Among the “really interesting advice” received, Cormier said representatives of disabled Canadians have pointed out that “when (leaders) talk over each other, how difficult it is for people with hearing disabilities to actually be able to know what’s been said because it’s hard to transcribe in either sign language or in captioning.

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“It’s stuff like that that seems maybe like a detail but which makes a big difference to people.”

The Trudeau government created the commission in a bid to avoid a replay of the 2015 campaign, when then prime minister Stephen Harper refused to take part in the traditional two debates sponsored by a consortium of television broadcasters. Ultimately, there were five debates organized by various media outlets, but critics argued that only a fraction of Canadians were able to watch compared to the 14 million who tuned in to the two debates in 2011.

Since 2015, Cormier said the need for widely accessible debates has increased – with the rise of fake news promulgated by bad domestic and foreign actors trying to manipulate the outcome of elections, sow dissension and undermine voters’ trust in democratic institutions.

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“With such disinformation and misinformation and manipulation, we believe the debate is one of the few places where people can actually have the same information, unmediated, at the same time, to help them make a choice,” he said.

“So we think these debates are even more important now because we live in filter bubbles, everybody, and it’s harder to get verified information or information that hasn’t been manipulated.”

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Under the rules established by the government, a party must meet two of three criteria to be eligible for an invitation to participate in the leaders’ debates. Those are:

  • have at least one MP elected under the party’s banner;
  • intend to run candidates in at least 90 per cent of the country’s ridings; and
  • have captured at least four per cent of the votes in the previous election or be considered by Johnston to have a legitimate chance to win seats in this election, based on public opinion polls (which allows for the possibility of upstart or breakaway parties).

Johnston has named a seven-member advisory panel, including former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, former New Democrat MP Megan Leslie and former Conservative MP Deborah Grey. The board is intended to be “a sounding board of wise and experienced people” but Johnston alone has decision-making authority, Cormier said.


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