Online consultation on political party leaders’ debates: What was heard

Ministerial message

The Prime Minister has directed the Minister of Democratic Institutions to bring forward options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders’ debates during future federal election campaigns, with a mandate to improve Canadians’ knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions.

On January 11, 2018, the Minister launched an online consultation on political party leaders’ debates in order to inform the policy work being undertaken to meet this commitment.

Leaders’ debates play an essential role in Canada’s federal elections. They engage Canadians in the electoral campaign and help inform their vote by providing a chance to directly view and compare prospective Prime Ministers.

I have read with interest the comments we received, and I am grateful to everyone who participated in the consultation and shared their perspective on this important subject. Your feedback and input, summarized here, have enriched my understanding of the issues and will help me move forward with the goal of having a new approach in place for the 2019 federal election.

Thank you for taking the time to contribute your ideas to the conversation.

Honourable Scott Brison
Acting Minister of Democratic Institutions

About the creation of an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders’ debates during future federal election campaigns

During the election period, televised leaders’ debates act as a platform for political leaders to present their ideas and policy positions in a respectful and open environment. Debates provide a platform through which all Canadians can take part in the public discourse on issues of national importance. Debates ensure that citizens are exposed to a diversity of political views, including positions that don’t always align with their own. Overall, debates help contribute to an engaged and well-informed citizenry, as well as a healthier, more vibrant democracy. Open public debate among political leaders is a critical part of our election process and to Canadian democracy as a whole.

Given that debates are an important exercise in our democracy, establishing an independent commissioner to organize the debates would help ensure that the interests of Canadians, rather than private entities and political parties, are central to how leaders’ debates are organized and broadcast. A commissioner would be responsible for considering the future of leaders’ debates in an ever-changing digital environment and how debates should be distributed to ensure that they could be experienced by a broad cross section of Canadians.

With the objective of having a new structure in place for the 2019 federal election, the Government of Canada is seeking feedback from three distinct sources:

  • The House of Commons’ Standing Procedures and House Affairs Committee has undertaken a study and heard from more than thirty witnesses;
  • The Minister of Democratic Institutions met with a cross section of leaders from media, academia and public interest groups in roundtable meetings across the country; and,
  • Canadians have been engaged by means of an online consultation asking what changes they would like to see as part of this initiative. 

What we heard – Themes

What follows is a summary of what was heard from Canadians through the online consultation, which was held from January 11, 2017 to February 12, 2018 and which will help inform ongoing policy work. Over 400 comments were received; additionally, over 14,000 emails were received outside of the online consultation portal as the result of a form letter writing campaign.

To the greatest extent possible, the input received is presented in Canadians’ own words. The views expressed below do not represent the position of the Government of Canada.

Importance of political party leaders’ debates

Participants clearly expressed that, in their view, leaders’ debates are an essential contribution to the health of Canadian democracy and ensure that Canada benefits from a well informed electorate. A number of respondents observed that, for many Canadians, most of the exposure they get to the positions held by the various political parties comes from listening to the televised leaders’ debates.

Excerpts on the importance of political party leaders’ debates:

“I firmly believe that debates are an integral part of our electoral process. They provide the best opportunity for Canadians to compare and contrast the different candidates, and to see how well each of them has familiarized themselves with the issues that are most important during the election cycle.”

“Leadership debates can play an important role in the electoral process at the basis of our democracy, and, if properly organized and formatted, can shed some real light on the qualities and policies of the leaders vying for a place in our democratic process.”

“Public debates are now an important part of federal elections to let voters assess the party leaders’ opinions, policies, and behaviour in tough situations.”

“It seems to me that this new commissioner position is essential to our democracy. Anything that strengthens it is welcome.” [translation]

“Debates are a pillar of a healthy, participatory democracy.”

Value and need for an independent commissioner

In addition to asserting that political party leaders’ debates are a crucial element of our electoral process, respondents emphasized that creating an independent commissioner to organize leaders’ debates would address perceived weaknesses in the current approach.

Most of the comments received agreed that an independent and non-partisan body would be the best mechanism to set the rules and requirements surrounding the organization of political party leaders’ debates. Canadians also stressed the importance for the commissioner to be independent from any political affiliations or influence.

Excerpts on the value and need for an independent commissioner: 

“Having an independent commissioner to set the rules regarding format, timing and participation would prevent political strategists from being able to work the system to their advantage. We have independent non-partisan commissioners for other important things in the Government. We should have one for something as important as democratic debates.”

“It is important that [leaders’ debates] be conducted in a fair and democratic way, and thus I applaud the government for embarking on this initiative.”

“It is critical that formal government involvement in setting the debates be done in a manner which is 100% transparent and free from political tampering in any form: content, format, timing etc.”

Clear parameters for leaders’ debates

An overwhelming majority of participants stressed the importance of having clear parameters for future leaders’ debates in the areas of participation, format, and/or content.

Transparent participation criteria

A significant majority - almost 90% - of comments received from Canadians touched upon the question of participation in leaders’ debates. Much of this input focused on the criteria that should be used to determine which party leaders would be permitted to participate in the debates. Another common input received was that party leaders’ participation should be mandatory and enforced with fines and/or penalties for non-participation.

While there were differing views on the specific criteria that should be applied, respondents emphasized that clear and transparent criteria must be applied well in advance of elections in an effort to depoliticize the issue of participation in leaders’ debates.

Participants also discussed the importance of having an independent commission empowered to make decisions on who to include in leaders’ debates. Concerns were raised that both political parties and the media have their own interests with regards to who should be included, and that because of the importance of this decision, it needs to be made by an entity which has the interest of all Canadians in mind.

Excerpts on transparent participation criteria:

“I respectfully urge you to ensure that Canada’s federal leaders’ debates are governed by fair and transparent guidelines. These guidelines must guarantee that all parties with a seat in the House of Commons can participate in the televised leaders’ debates. Furthermore, any party whose leader refuses to participate should face a financial penalty. Anything less is unfair to Canadian voters, who must have the opportunity to hear all the diverse viewpoints represented in our Parliament.

“Please adopt an approach to inclusion of speakers in the leaders debate that is reasonable and consistent and free of political interference such as including the leader (or delegate) of any party that has elected at least one MP, has (or is prepared to run) candidates in most of the ridings in Canada, and has previously take at least 3% of the vote across the Country. This should not be an ongoing issue but needs to be settled permanently, certainly before the next election.”

“There needs to be set criteria enforced so that what has been happening the past few election cycles doesn’t continue to happen such as excluding some party leaders, or having party leaders withdrawing from debates which then in turn force them to be cancelled.”

“Leadership debates should be open to all parties who qualify for the election expenses rebates from the Federal Government.”

“It should be compulsory that the leaders attend. No negotiating on the format before agreeing to attend.”

“It is important to keep the debate entry fair and open for new and smaller parties.”

“All parties that are represented in Parliament or that received at least 5% of the vote in five provinces should be included in the leaders’ debates. Leaving them out would mean excluding a significant portion of the electorate.” [translation]

“Any party that meets at least two out of three of these criteria should be included in the leaders’ debates:

  • Have an elected MP in the House of Commons;
  • Run candidates in all or nearly all riding in Canada; and,
  • Have 4% of the vote in the previous election.”

Engaging and accessible debate formats

Participants also expressed considerable interest in ensuring that the format of leaders’ debates is engaging and accessible.

A significant number of comments suggested that multiple leaders’ debates should be held on a range of specific issues such as the environment, social issues, the economy and foreign policy. This would help Canadians engage with their prospective leaders across a spectrum of issues.

Another area of interest concerned the number of debates that should be held during each electoral period. There was a broad range of opinions expressed, but almost all participants stated that there should be a minimum of two debates.

It was also expressed that the timing of these debates should be set as early as possible to afford Canadians with as much notice as possible, thereby making them more accessible, and that consideration should be given to the best possible locations for the debates to engage voters across the country.

Participants also emphasized the importance of recognizing and taking into account Canada’s two official languages. While the current formula of holding separate events in French and English seems satisfying to some electors, others expressed an interest in moving towards bilingual debates, where leaders would be required to answer questions in both English and French during the same event. 

Excerpts on engaging and accessgive debate formats:

“The leaders debates should each go more in depth on one specific policy issue. The first debate should only be focused on the economy for example, and the next only focused on foreign policy. This gives the leaders a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of their own platforms and the ideas themselves beyond a superficial level.”

“The number of dates and times should be in each official language should be determined before the start of the campaign period and this negotiation should be concluded 1 month before the start of any campaign.”

“There should be a minimum of two debates during an election: one in English and another in French. The maximum number of debates should be determined solely by time and available platforms willing to host the debates.”

“Hosting leaders’ debates in large, physically accessible venues across the country will enable more Canadians than ever to participate by attending in person.”

 “The Canadian government has to be sure that it takes the perspective of Francophone minority communities into account...If the government wants the debates to enable voters to compare policy positions and engage Canadians during election campaigns, then it must also ensure that all Francophones in the country can benefit equitably from this democratic exercise.” [translation]

Respectful and informed debate content

The content of the leaders’ debate has also been the target of multiple suggestions for improvement. Canadians have expressed concerns with regards to a perceived lack of discipline and respect on display during the debates. In that sense, the general consensus is that the role of the debate moderator should be to ensure that discussions during the debate are structured and respectful. The feedback received clearly demonstrates diminished satisfaction with political debates when showmanship and entertainment dominate the event.

Input was also received with regards to the questions being asked during the debates. On the basis of openness and transparency, Canadians have expressed the desire to be more engaged in the formulation of questions that party leaders will have to answer during the debates. The use of technology seems to be the cornerstone of the comments received, with suggestions ranging from creating an online portal for electors to submit official debate questions, to social media users being able to send live questions to leaders during the debates.

Excerpts on respectful and informed debate content:

“We need fair, open discussions on the topics that concern Canadians the most”.

“My main recommendation is that moderators of debates should be ready, willing, and able to enforce rules of courteous and civil exchanges”

“These debates are not for politicians. They are to serve the interests of the voters so they can cast an informed vote.”

“The debates should be about positions, facts and ideas; never about personal attacks.”

“I think using well respected media members as chairs of debates is good. They have the skill set to cross examine and deal with difficult people.”

“A leader must be able to think on his feet in all types of situations. I would really like to hear their off the cuff replies; it would give me a better insight into the participant's politics and personality.”

“Let's remember on our main characteristics as Canadians is openness, fairness and being polite!”

Ensuring a broad distribution for leaders’ debates

A number of Canadians also stressed the importance of ensuring that leaders’ debates are distributed as freely and broadly as reasonable so as to ensure it reaches the broadest possible range of Canadians.

Some participants commented on the continued importance of television and radio in reaching Canadians, while others observed the increasing importance of the Internet and online media as a way of reaching young voters in particular.

Excerpts on ensuring a broad distribution for leaders’ debates:

 “I do not have cable nor a PVR so the ability to watch the debate online live or, a recorded version later, would also be helpful.”

“I do think that guaranteed availability of the opportunity to review a debate in full afterwards is important.”

“I support making the broadcasting of leaders’ debates a condition of licence for all national broadcasters in Canada.”

“The television networks have the ability to stream the debates live on the internet through their own websites but the debates should also be streamed through a government internet portal of some sort to assure full access to all Canadians worldwide.”

“Debates should be accessible via traditional television, radio, and online formats. Any platform willing to host a debate should be afforded the opportunity to do so, and there should be no preference given to one form of media over another.”

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