Column: Time to embrace a multi-debate formula

When it comes to the televised debates of the upcoming federal campaign, the only certainty is that there will be at least one in each official language and that the leaders of Canada’s three main parties will be on stage.

Everything else is up in the air.

As the [Toronto] Star reported last week, some Conservative strategists are flirting with the idea of pushing for as many as five regional debates. Based on Justin Trudeau’s performance in question period, they believe the debate format will not serve the Liberal leader well.

From their perspective the potential advantages of putting Trudeau on the spot offset the risks to their own leader. But that may change.

In an election debate the incumbent is almost always on the hot seat. On that basis, Stephen Harper would normally accept no more than the minimum number of debates and that may yet be the stance the ruling party brings to the negotiating table.

A multi-debate formula would have zero downside for the NDP. Its leader can use all the exposure he can get. Moreover, one of Thomas Mulcair’s strengths is a consistent capacity to think on his feet. That could be another reason for the Conservatives to ultimately come down on the side of as few debates as politically possible.

But in the unlikely event that both the New Democrats and the Conservatives push for multiple debates the Liberals would have to go along. Third parties do not have the luxury of boycotting election debates unless they want to send the message that their leader is not ready for prime time. Besides, it is not a given that Trudeau would not benefit from the gift of low expectations.

The Green party, whose leader Elizabeth May was kept out of the 2011 debates because it did not hold a seat in the House of Commons, is adamant that her election as MP guarantees her a place on the podium.

May did participate in the 2008 debates and her party won a greater share of the vote in that election (6.8 per cent) than in the last one (3.9 per cent). One could draw the conclusion that May’s exclusion hurt her cause. But an alternative explanation could be that the Greens – like the other parties whose leaders did take part in the debates – were hurt by the 2011 NDP surge.

The Bloc Quebecois has had a seat at the leaders’ table since 1993 and it will insist on keeping it despite losing official party status in the last election.

Leader Mario Beaulieu does have a strong case when it comes to the French-language debate. The Bloc was the party of choice of Quebecers for two decades.

Even in its current slump it regularly outpolls the Conservatives in Quebec voting intentions and it enjoys three to four times more support in that province than the Green party.

If I were a betting person I would wager that if the networks and the parties stick to the scenario of a single debate in each official language, the exercise will feature four or five leaders and not just the three who are vying to be prime minister.

But in a world where the interest of voters came first the debate format would not come down to an either/or choice.

In the days when two or three networks dominated the Canadian television landscape and the reach of their technology was limited, there was a compelling logistical case to be made for one debate in each language to be held on consecutive evenings.

But in today’s multi-channel, multi-platform environment there is no programming excuse for limiting the number of debates, sticking to a one-size-fits-all format or for holding them in a single central location rather than spreading them across the country in a way that accommodates the travel needs of the leaders.

Quebec experimented with a multi-debate formula in 2012 and 2014. Those campaigns featured both a traditional all-leaders debate along the same lines as the federal ones plus one or more encounters devoted to one-on-one exchanges between the main protagonists.

The one thing all those debates had in common was a consistently large audience.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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