Three leaders’ debates — two of which are in French — simply aren’t enough

Click to play video: 'Canada election: Federal party leaders square off in 1st French-language debate'
Canada election: Federal party leaders square off in 1st French-language debate
Canadian federal party leaders squared off in the first debate of this campaign cycle in Quebec on Thursday. The French-language debate featured Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, sparring over issues like COVID-19 vaccination status, health care and more. Global’s Mike Le Couteur reports – Sep 3, 2021

By most accounts, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held his own in Thursday night’s French-language leaders’ debate, despite being very much the main target of the other party leaders on stage. Whether that holds true in Wednesday night’s French-language debate remains to be seen.

But the fact that there is a second French-language leader’s debate is important to note, because there is only one English-language leaders’ debate (which will take place this coming Thursday, Sept. 9). That’s not to say we should only have an even number of leaders’ debates in an election campaign, but it doesn’t seem right that there should be twice as many in one official language.

The two upcoming leaders’ debates are the official debates organized by the Leaders’ Debate Commission, an entity created by the Trudeau government in 2018. Its mandate is to organize one debate in each official language, but that does not preclude other debates from occurring.

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Therefore, it is not the commission’s fault that we have an imbalance. The debate that occurred on Thursday night was organized by TVA, a private broadcaster based in Quebec. In other words, TVA basically said, “we’d like to host a leaders’ debate” and the leaders agreed to come (at least those who were invited — Green Party Leader Annamie Paul was not invited to the TVA debate but will participate in the other two upcoming debates).

It stands to reason, then, that we needn’t be confined only to the two official commission-sanctioned debates. There was certainly tension in the 2015 election between the incumbent Conservative government and the previous broadcast consortium (which included Global TV) that organized debates, so scrapping the commission and reverting to the previous status quo is not necessarily the answer.

So let’s just open it up. Networks can try to organize their own debates above and beyond the commission debates, as can other organizations and institutions. What’s needed, however, is a willingness on the part of the political parties to participate. And based on what occurred in 2019, it’s fair to conclude that much of the reluctance is coming from the Trudeau Liberals.

For one, we had the odd spectacle of a leader’s debate in 2019 that did not include the incumbent. Justin Trudeau opted to attend a rally rather than a debate organized by one of the private broadcasters. The leaders of the Conservative, New Democrat, and Green parties instead shared the stage.

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There was another debate in 2019 that was scrapped altogether, again for the same reason. After Justin Trudeau refused to participate, the Munk Debates were forced to cancel a planned leaders’ debate with a specific focus on foreign policy.

Between those two snubs and the fact that the Leaders’ Debate Commission has a mandate for only a bare minimum of two debates, it tells us a lot about how much Trudeau values these debates.

Mind you, Trudeau did agree to Thursday’s TVA debate. The snubs in 2019 both involved English-language debates. Perhaps Trudeau has more confidence in his French debating skills — or perhaps has a rather dim view of what he’s up against in a French-language leaders’ debate. But such narrow and strategic considerations shouldn’t deny Canadians — of both official languages — the opportunity to have multiple opportunities to hear party leaders discussing and debating important issues.

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Between the pandemic, vaccinations, health care, the economy, jobs, energy policy, foreign policy, reconciliation, the environment, housing, and social issues, it feels like many of these important issues will be given short shrift in the few debates we have (especially since topics in the upcoming French and English debates will likely largely mirror each other).

I get that organizing debates and coordinating schedules can be a challenge, especially in a shorter election like this one — with an ongoing pandemic on top of that. Expecting a half-dozen leaders’ debates is probably an unrealistic expectation.

But I think it’s fair to say that what we’re getting just isn’t good enough. And that’s on our leaders.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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