POLITICS

Trudeau, Mulcair In Difficult Position As Munk Organizers Say Debate Not Bilingual

09/10/2015 01:55 EDT | Updated 09/10/2015 01:59 EDT

OTTAWA — They promised they would participate in an equal number of French and English debates, but now NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have found themselves in a tough spot after the Munk Debates said its event won't be bilingual after all.

Rudyard Griffiths, the chair of the Munk Debates, issued a statement on Thursday saying the organization never promised a bilingual debate.

"In all of our public and private communications with the three party leaders invited to take part in the Munk Election Debate on Canada's Foreign Policy, we indicated that our event would have 'bilingual components.' The draft format that we proposed to the parties last week includes components conducted in both official languages. At no time did we state that the debate would be bilingual," Griffiths said.

On Aug. 12, Griffiths issued a news release saying the debate would "include a bilingual component."

But sources suggested that was not what Munk organizers told the parties in August when the NDP and Liberals signed on to participate in the Sept. 28 debate. At the time, the Munk Debates said they would "accommodate" the parties' request for linguistic duality, a source said. The final proposal, sent to the parties recently, has about 15 per cent French content and a unilingual anglophone moderator.

Mulcair told reporters Thursday that his team would be in touch with debate organizers "to make sure that what we agreed to, which is a bilingual debate, is actually going to be the format." But the NDP leader suggested he saw no reason for pulling out.

"My intention, and every indication that I've had to date, is that I agreed to a bilingual debate and there is nothing pointing to the contrary at this stage."

In July, when Mulcair made his participation in leaders' debates contingent on Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's participation — and pulled out of the women's Up for Debate function as a consequence — he also stated he would only agree to an equal number of French and English debates.

That put Mulcair in a tough spot since Harper, who had said publicly he would take part in up to five debates, had already agreed to one French debate and three English debates, including the Munk debate. Party organizers worked behind the scenes, and the NDP announced on Aug. 11 that it would attend a bilingual Munk debate. Harper later agreed to join the Radio-Canada French debate.

Liberals flag 'serious concerns'

In an open letter Wednesday evening, Trudeau's team raised concerns about the lack of French and also questioned the appropriateness of charging admission to an "exclusive" list of Canadians to attend the debate. They threatened to pull Trudeau out of the debate if their concerns weren't addressed.

"These are very serious concerns," Liberal campaign co-chairs Katie Telford and Dan Gagnier wrote. "Our decision to participate in this debate will be contingent on your ability to meet these concerns in a material way."

Back in May, the Liberals said they believed traditional nationally televised broadcast debates were the best to reach the most Canadians. They said they wanted to see an equal number of English and French debates, and hoped the French debates would also be available to francophones outside Quebec.

Liberals also wanted all party leaders represented in the House of Commons, such as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Forces et Démocratie Leader Jean-François Fortin, to take part and hoped for a live studio audience to ask the questions.

Telford and Gagnier now say they feel the Munk Debates organizers have not respected their commitments.

"We agreed in principle, under the presumption that this was a bilingual debate; however, this is clearly not a bilingual debate," the Liberal duo wrote.

They also said they couldn't accept a debate that was not open to all Canadians. "The days of political leaders' auditioning in front of the country's wealthiest elite are behind us."

Munk organizers responded by saying it had made tickets ($30-$95) available to its 30,000 members and plans to release tickets to some of its unpaid members or the general public on Friday.

"The cost of organizing this debate, as with all our debates, is considerably more than the revenues generated through ticket sales," Griffiths said.

He added that he hoped to have a "constructive dialogue" with all three parties regarding the format. The Munk debate is scheduled for Sept. 28 in Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.

It's unclear what either Trudeau or Mulcair will do if their original conditions are not met.

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