POLITICS

NDP Says Universities Not Neutral Enough To Host Leaders' Debates

05/21/2015 06:49 EDT | Updated 05/21/2015 07:59 EDT

OTTAWA — Canada’s New Democrats believe Canadian universities are “not really neutral” enough venues in which to hold the leaders’ debates.

The surprising comments were made by NDP national campaign director Anne McGrath during confidential discussions with representatives of the broadcast consortium as well as the Liberal party, Green party and Bloc Québécois, several sources told The Huffington Post Canada.

The Conservatives did not participate in the discussions in Ottawa on Thursday, although it appears they spoke with the consortium before the meeting.

“The NDP had the same concern as the Conservatives, in that the venues being proposed are universities,” one source said, requesting anonymity. “The NDP’s argument was that universities are not really neutral.

“It was shocking,” the source added. “The [NDP] seemed so committed in getting youth engaged in politics, and, interestingly, the consortium is really engaged on that.”

McGrath suggested that the consortium consider the National Arts Centre in Ottawa or Massey Hall in Toronto, the person added.

NDP spokesman George Soule told HuffPost that McGrath would not comment to the media.

“We are not going to comment on parts of negotiations that happen behind closed doors,” he said.

The Conservatives had previously argued before the consortium that universities were not ideal because it would be hard to control the crowd. The fear seems to be that a student might say something or someone might throw something on stage.

“It is odd, isn’t it?,” said another source familiar with Thursday’s discussion who also requested anonymity. “They could hold it in a ditch as far as I’m concerned.”

“[But] you would think that the NDP would want to talk about education,” the person added.

A source from a third party said the exchange with McGrath happened during a discussion with the Green party representatives.

Thursday’s debate wranglings confirmed to some that the NDP and Conservatives have been working together for months to box in the Liberals and freeze the Greens out of the debates.

“In my view, there is an attempt to get the Liberals off the opposition map… and the NDP doesn’t want the Greens there,” one person involved with the negotiations said. “Two parties who are diametrically opposed are working together.”

On Twitter, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s advisor, Gerald Butts, has been tweeting sections of books written by NDP strategist Brad Lavigne and Toronto Star journalist Susan Delacourt describing how the NDP and the Tories co-operated in past federal elections.

A Liberal source, who was not at the negotiations, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper is choosing to participate in debates only in venues and from outlets with which he is most comfortable.

“It’s insane, he’s accepted a debate hosted by [Parti Québécois Leader] Pierre Karl Péladeau’s company [TVA television network], one hosted by The Globe and Mail in Harper’s hometown [Calgary], one by conservative Peter Munk’s foundation, and one moderated by his biographer [Maclean’s magazine’s Paul Wells].”

“The headscratcher is why the NDP abetted all of this. All they had to do was to say we are open to other debates and we are fine to participate in them on the condition that Harper participates in the broadcast. And as soon as they left him off the hook, he just ran the table on them.”

The Liberals outlined Thursday their preference for a broadcast debate that, they said, would reach the most Canadians. The televised debate in English during the 2011 campaign reached 10 million Canadians. The Liberals did not say whether they were open to more debates outside the consortium. They have not committed to the Globe, TVA, Maclean’s or Munk debates though the NDP has confirmed its participation. The NDP has also said it will take part in a debate sponsored by the seniors’ advocacy group CARP and another organized by the women’s rights group Up for Debate.

Soule said it is “ridiculous” to suggest that the NDP and Tories are working together. “Our position from the beginning has been that more debates are better. And we are looking forward to seeing Tom Mulcair debate Stephen Harper and the other leaders so he can put forward the NDP plan to get Canada on the right track.

“You can be sure that Tom will debate the prime minister anytime, anywhere.”

Soule said the NDP had engaged with the consortium hoping all parties would agree to the debates.

Conservative party spokesman Kory Teneycke confirmed late Thursday that the Tories would not participate in the broadcast consortium’s debates at all.

In the United States, the Commission on Presidential Debates published a list last month of the venues that had applied to be host for presidential debates. It included 14 universities or colleges and two cities.

No decision was made Thursday on whether the venue would be a university or whether there would be audience participation.

The consortium told party representatives at the meeting that there would be two debates instead of four and sought agreement — which they achieved — that the parties would take part in those debates despite the Conservatives’ absence. The consortium made it clear to everyone that it has no intention of breaking up, sources said.

The meeting resulted in a communiqué outlining the confirmation.

The Bloc issued a press release in French saying it was upset it had not been included in the English debate.

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