POLITICS

Up for debate: parties blowing up the old system of leader election face-offs

05/12/2015 09:19 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - Canadians can expect to see multiple federal election debates during this campaign season, likely over the summer and in different formats, as part of a major upheaval in the way the leaders square off in person.

YouTube, live-streaming, multiple moderators — it's all on the table in the run-up to the October vote.

The Conservative Party of Canada appears to be taking the first step in shaking up the debate system, rejecting outright the traditional model of one debate each in French and English, both tightly controlled by the major networks.

The Conservatives and the NDP have instead said yes to two new debates — one proposed by the French-language network TVA and another hosted in August by Maclean's magazine. And they're willing to do more.

The Liberals, meanwhile, haven't made any commitments, but say that the time has come to create a new independent debate commission to oversee the particulars.

"I'm not saying yes to anything, I'm not saying no to anything, except to say, yes, we're going to do debates," Trudeau said.

"I'm anxious to debate, but we will decide in the coming weeks what they will be."

The extent to which the Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois will be able to participate remains unclear. TVA has said Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu will participate in its debate.

The Greens and the NDP have also agreed to participate in a debate hosted by an alliance of women's organizations.

Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke has said his party is willing to participate in up to five debates, and wouldn't necessarily turn down something hosted individually by a consortium member such as CTV, CBC/Radio-Canada or Global.

"There are many credible organizations and media organizations capable of hosting a debate, and the notion that you would exclude all of them in favour of three broadcasters seems to me to be difficult to defend," Teneycke said.

NDP campaign director Anne McGrath said her party isn't opposed to the consortium's proposal, but is also open to others.

"Our objective is to have more debates and more opportunities for our leader to debate the prime minister," McGrath said.

Canada's system of organizing debates has been criticized for years, particularly over a perceived lack of accountability within the TV consortium.

The consortium issued a statement Tuesday, emphasizing the wide reach of the televised debates during the 2011 campaign — 10 million viewers for the English debate, and four million for the French.

"As a public service, Canada's major broadcasters come together to make sure that the debates are exposed to as many Canadians as possible airing on all the networks," the consortium said.

"In addition to the core consortium group which produces the debates, the debates historically have been distributed to other broadcasters, again ensuring wide access to Canadians."

The Liberals and others have called for a system more like that in the U.S., where a non-partisan group decides on the hosts and venues. Still, that Commission on Presidential Debates has also faced criticism for an apparent lack of transparency and for effectively being controlled by the Democrats and the Republicans.

Of course, there's always plenty of politics involved where debates are concerned.

The parties want to ensure the best possible set of circumstances for their respective leaders. Summer debates would also force the parties to reveal parts of their platform early.

Longtime Conservative activist and Ottawa consultant Yaroslav Baran says it's likely in Harper's interest to go up against his less experienced rivals as often as possible to highlight their differences.

Choosing different venues and hosts also means the possibility of reaching different voters.

"If you end up with five debates, each on a different platform, you're basically guaranteeing that you're reaching people that you wouldn't reach if you had two debates according to the classic consortium format," said Baran.

"You have a whole bunch of people in Canada who don't even own a television anymore, or a landline telephone."