Leaders’ debates in future election campaigns might be better if there were more of them but some featured only the main contenders for prime minister, federal debates commissioner David Johnston said Tuesday.
The former governor general was speaking at an event in Ottawa promoting his new book, entitled “Trust,” and offered some thoughts about the debates during a question-and-answer session.
He acknowledged the widespread disapproval of the format of the one sanctioned English-language debate in the recent election campaign, which included six party leaders and five moderators.
“I think it’s important that one has criticism,” he said.
“I think the fact that we had six leaders participating made for a pretty busy stage, but the mandate that the debates commission, which I chair, was given was to permit into the debate a leader of (any) party who had a legitimate chance of electing candidates. That meant candidates in two ridings or more, and that’s a fairly low bar.”
One could argue the bar was too low, he said, but on the other hand, holding debates with all leaders allowed “voices from across the spectrum.”
That’s why he’s now floating the idea of a separate set of election debates with only major-party leaders as a potential fix.
“There’s an argument that you should have a debate with only two or three leaders and perhaps the ideal would be to have one debate in each of the two languages with two or three leaders and another debate in each of the two languages with six or seven.”
One moderator rather than five would also make more sense, Johnston said.
The debates commission is preparing a report on its work, which it must present to Parliament by March 31.
Whether these ideas will be included in the final recommendations is not clear, but Johnston said the commission has been hearing from a number of research groups and institutions that have performed their own post-mortems on the debates.
The federal government formed the commission to organize officially sanctioned leaders’ debates after the 2015 campaign saw leaders, including then-prime minister Stephen Harper and Opposition leader Tom Mulcair, decide not to appear in traditional contests organized by a consortium of broadcasters. Instead, other media outlets, foundations and technology companies organized their own debates with varying levels of participation.
Johnston, before serving as governor general, was a law professor and university president and moderated several leaders’ debates himself.
One thing the commission has been looking at closely is the number of Canadians who watched the debates and in what ways.
There was a “dramatic jump” in the penetration levels of the leaders’ debates in this election compared to the ones held in 2015, and also a sharp increase in the number of people who watched through social media and not on traditional television, Johnston said.
“I think we have to understand that the digital revolution has taken hold of young people in ways that create waves of change that we haven’t seen before.”
All six party leaders participated in the two the official commission debates held during the fifth week of the campaign. They also all appeared in a second French-only debate hosted by the French television station TVA. Two other non-commission debates ran into trouble when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted not to participate in them.
One of them, hosted by Maclean’s, went ahead without Trudeau while the Munk debate on foreign policy was cancelled.
The notion of compelling party leaders to participate in debates was studied prior to the creation of the debates commission, and the conclusion was reached that it was “not Canadian to require people to be at the podium,” Johnston said.
This is one reason why he says he is “shying away” from this as one of his final recommendations.
“What we will recommend, I think, if we don’t go that route, is to try to create such a climate of expectation, dare I say trust, so that it would be very awkward for a leader of one of the principal parties to say, ‘I’m not going to participate in at least two debates.'”
When asked about the election debates last week on Parliament Hill, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould mainly dodged reporters’ questions, saying only that she’s looking forward to seeing the commission’s final report.
“We saw that a lot of Canadians watched those debates. They tuned in, they were interested and we’re going to learn from those experiences.”