The Leaders’ Debates Commission was created to put an end to machinations by the big political parties to control how, when, what and who leaders would debate during federal election campaigns.
But after Thursday’s controversial English-language debate, some critics are calling for an end to the independent commission or at least an overhaul of its mandate.
The two-hour fractious debate has been roundly condemned for giving leaders too little time to explain their policies or rebut attacks from rivals, and giving too much time to moderator Shachi Kurl and journalist questioners to interrupt.
Kurl has also been accused of asking biased questions, particularly with regard to what she termed Quebec’s “discriminatory” law that bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols or garb at work and a bill intended to strengthen the role of French in the province.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government created the debates commission after winning the 2015 election.
In that campaign, the traditional English debate organized by a consortium of television networks, was scuppered after then-prime minister Stephen Harper refused to participate.
Five other debates were held but reached far fewer viewers.
Even before then, the consortium debates had been criticized for allowing the big parties to threaten non-participation in order to dictate the terms of the debates. The Green party alleged that its leader had been systematically excluded as a result.
The TV networks had also been criticized for caring more about putting on a good show than helping to inform voters.
The debates commission, headed by former governor general David Johnston, was meant to rectify all that.
The commission set the criteria for participation in Thursday’s English debate and the French debate on Wednesday, which resulted in the exclusion of People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier.
But it gave most of the responsibility for producing the debates to network consortiums. For the English debate, the consortium included CBC News, CTV News, APTN News and Global News.
According to its website, the commission works with the debates’ producers “to develop a format that reflects the public interest, while respecting journalistic independence.”
But in a statement Friday, the English broadcast consortium said it “selects the moderator and participating journalists, who have complete journalistic and editorial independence from the Leaders’ Debates Commission.”
Kurl referred requests for comment to the consortium’s statement, which said her question to Yves-Francois Blanchet addressed the two provincial bills specifically and “did not state that Quebecers are racist,” rebutting a claim from the Bloc Quebecois leader.
The commission confirmed it was not involved in the choice of themes, questions or the moderator.
And that’s the problem, says Elly Alboim, a former CBC parliamentary bureau chief who was involved in producing election debates from 1977-93 and has since helped various provincial and federal Liberal leaders prepare for them.
“They (the commission) seem to have accepted the advice of whoever is producing the thing to turn it into a TV show,” Alboim said in an interview.
He said the networks are “interested in maintaining audiences, providing kind of fast-paced, interesting television” and the journalists involved are “acting on journalistic impulse: What makes news, how do we make them accountable, how do we point out when they’re inconsistent, how do we explain to the audience what their shortcomings are?”
But that’s not what an election debate should be about, Alboim argued.
“They’re about the leaders of the parties holding each other to account and explaining their platforms and appealing to their voters. They don’t need the intermediation of journalists,” he said, noting that journalists have plenty of opportunities to grill the leaders every day on the campaign trail.
“The democratic responsibility in my view is to get out of the way, let people evaluate what they’re hearing and certainly give the leaders adequate time to explain themselves and their programs. It cannot be done in 15 and 20-second bursts.”
Alboim said Thursday’s format allowed only a “minuscule” amount of time for any of the leaders to seriously discuss an issue or advance their policies.
But, in his view, the fact that it frequently allowed no time for a leader to rebut a direct attack by a rival was inexcusable.
“Not to understand that you’ve created a format where people can lob accusations in mid-air and get no response or no rebuttal is a dereliction of duty,” Alboim said.
It meant Trudeau, who was the primary target of those attacks, was left playing the role of “pin cushion.”
“They would each do a drive-by smear and then move on to something else and he wouldn’t get a chance to respond so, of course, he suffered from the format.”