Get Involved: Consultations on Federal Leaders’ Debates now open

On Friday, January 12th, 2018 in Democracy, Get Involved, Parliament, Publications

The Ministry of Democratic Institutions has opened consultations for feedback on the federal leaders’ debates. At issue is whether an independent commission or Commissioner of Debates ought to be created to organize the debates in advance of the 2019 election.

Elizabeth May contends that reform of the federal leaders’ debates is long overdue. The importance of these debates cannot be over-estimated: nationally broadcast debates matter to the leaders participating, the associated political parties, and most importantly, Canadian voters. National media coverage of the parties and their leaders is directly related to inclusion in the debates. This additional media coverage translates to electoral returns at the polls (see Appendix).

The more debates, the better. All Canadians have a right to view the federal leaders’ debates, and the Prime Minister has an obligation to answer Canadians as do all other federal leaders.  Elizabeth believes more debates, in both traditional and new media formats, are better for Canadians. The leaders’ debates are an integral part of the election process.

The federal leaders’ debates should not be managed by a consortium of the same organizations who report on the event. A non-partisan, independent commission should be established to regulate the debates. This commission would create clear criteria for determining who is eligible to participate in these debates.

In March 2016, Elizabeth proposed key features for fair and inclusive leaders’ debates, published by Policy Options. Building on those proposals, she offers the following:

Criteria in Legislation
We must ensure that inclusion in debates is not open to manipulation by the large parties. Criteria should be established in legislation. To be both flexible and fair, Elizabeth has set out three criteria, any two of which would ensure inclusion of a party leader in national televised debates:

  1. Have an elected MP in the House,
  2. Run in all or nearly all ridings in Canada, and/or
  3. Have 4% of the vote in the previous election

4% was selected as a high threshold, double the percentage required to qualify for funding rebates under the Elections Act. No parties, other than those currently with seats in the house, have reached two percent in the last nine elections.

These criteria meet the political reality of Canada. The Bloc would have been included — even though the party has never run a candidate outside Quebec. The Green Party would have been included in 2008 even without an elected MP, and in 2011 as well.

Commissioner’s Relationship with Networks
The Queen’s University Centre for the Study of Democracy published recommendations in September 2009 calling for more debates, but debates that featured more than party leaders. Let each party put forward its specialist or spokesperson in key areas of public policy to hold debates on social policy, environment, foreign policy, and so on. This would allow Canadians to see the people who could form a cabinet in each party, and familiarize them with politicians beyond the party leaders. These issue-specific debates need not be run simultaneously on the major networks, but could be on CPAC and available on-line.

Ensure that the main leaders’ debates are broadcast simultaneously, and live on the major national networks.  The debates should be organized according to published, consistent and transparent criteria.

In order to facilitate this and coordinate between an independent Commissioner of Debates and the news organizations with expertise and capacity in running debates, Elizabeth submits that the commission should have an advisory panel including Global TV, CBC and Radio Canada, and CTV.To be more generic, rather than name specific networks, the qualifying terms for network inclusion in the Commissioner’s advisory panel could be those national networks with substantial Canadian news operations at the local, regional and national level in one of Canada’s two official languages.

Compelling Leader Attendance
Enshrining leaders’ debates in legislation would have the advantage of making participation compulsory. Let’s ensure that future prime ministers do not have the option of saying, “Play my way or I’ll take my bat and my ball and go home.”

In order to ensure the participation of leaders, the Elections Act should be amended to include a financial penalty for any party whose leader qualifies under two of the three sliding criteria and refuses to participate. It would be a cut of 20% of expected rebate for every debate a national leader skips or refuses to participate in for reasons of political expediency.

There should be at least two debates among the leaders of parties that meet two out of three of the established criteria. There should be at least one nationally televised debate in each official language during the writ period. Debates should be broadcast nationally in English on CBC, Global and CTV, and in French on Radio Canada and TVA, as we have done traditionally.  As well, the debates should be available on CPAC and through social media and online streaming options to reach the most Canadians possible.

There should be consideration of providing funding to the commercial networks to compensate for, at least, some of lost advertising revenue during prime time.  CBC and Radio Canada exist for the purpose of public broadcasting and would not need to be compensated for leaders’ debates in the public interest.

These debates are not for politicians. They are to serve the interests of the voters so they can cast an informed vote. With low voter turnout in recent elections, and especially in the current global political climate, fair and accessible debates are integral to the health of Canadian democracy.

Submit Feedback to the Consultations, deadline February 9

What improvements would you like to see? What are your thoughts on an independent commission or Commissioner? Do you feel the media consortium should continue to organize the federal leaders’ debates? Share your thoughts with the Minister for Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, by submitting here. The deadline for feedback is February 9.


Table 1 – Provincial Greens, inclusion in debates and election results

Provincial election Greens Included in Debate? Greens elected % of popular vote Change from last election (%)
Ontario, 2014 No 0 4.84 + 1.92
New Brunswick, 2014 Yes 1 6.61 + 2.07
Prince Edward Island, 2015 Yes 1 10.81 + 6.45%
British Columbia, 2017 Yes 3 16.84 +8.71

Note: The BC Greens have been included in the provincial general election debates since 2001. In every election since 2001, they have received over 8% of the popular vote.

Table 2 – Green Party of Canada, inclusion in debates and election results

Federal Election Year Greens Included in Debate? % of popular vote Change from last election (%)
2008 Yes 6.78 +2.30
2011 No 3.91 -2.86
2015 The Green Party attended the Maclean’s and French language consortium debates, but there was no English consortium debate. 3.45 -0.46

 Table 3 - The Reform Party leader, Preston Manning, was included in the federal leaders’ debates in 1993. The Reform Party had one sitting MP, Deborah Gray, who won her seat in a by-election in 1989

Federal Election Year Seats pre-election Seats in 1993 % of popular vote Change from last election (%)
1993 1 52 18.69


 Table 4: The Bloc Quebecois leader, Lucien Bouchard, was included in the federal leaders’ debates. This was the first election in which the BQ took part, and they went on to form the official opposition

Federal Election Year Seats pre-election Seats in 1993 % of popular vote Change from last election (%)
1993 - 54 13.52



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