OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper won’t take part in the traditional televised leaders’ debates during the upcoming election.
The Conservatives rejected the broadcast consortium’s offer of four debates, and party spokesman Cory Hann said the Tories won’t accept any other debate proposals from the group of TV networks — Shaw/Global, CBC and CTV — that usually organizes and airs the debates.
In a letter Tuesday, Conservative campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke said Harper is ready to take part in five debates at most. He will participate in a debate hosted by French-language broadcaster TVA, an English debate proposed by Maclean’s magazine and its owner Rogers Communications, and is open to possibly one more in French and two more in English, Teneycke said.
Television networks are free to make independent pitches, but the Conservative party will not agree to any debates set up by the consortium, he said.
"We won't participate in any. It's a hard No," he told the Canadian Press.
"We have many, many offers from other credible media outlets," he added.
In an interview with Global News, Teneycke, who used to run the now-defunct, Conservative-leaning Sun News Network, accused the three major television networks of having a “sense of entitlement” that was self-serving and excluded other organizations. He said the media landscape has changed and the consortium is “not really required” to broadcast the debates, according to Global News.
The NDP, Liberals and Greens responded to the surprising news by accusing the Conservatives of trying to manipulate the rules for their own benefit.
“I am concerned that the Conservatives are perhaps trying to put some controls around the number of debates and who is in them,” NDP campaign director Anne McGrath said.
Liberal spokesman Olivier Duchesneau said the Tories do not want the “the broadest number of Canadians” to hear from Harper.
“Political parties and broadcasters should not be able to cherry-pick debates on an ad hoc basis,” he said.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May criticized the Tories’ decision as an attempt to make the debates less accessible to Canadians. Residents of rural and remote communities who have limited access to private broadcasting, high-speed Internet and web streaming will have a harder time watching the debates, she said.
The broadcast consortium had recently invited May to join the debates and Bloc Québécois Leader Mario Beaulieu to participate in only the French-language debate.
The television networks responded to the news by saying they remain committed to organizing debates for the 2015 federal election. In a statement, the chair of the consortium, CBC executive Jennifer McGuire, said the consortium does not see itself as a monopoly and it supports the political parties’ rights to consider other debates.
Historically, she said, broadcasters came together as a public service — when the parties limited their participation in debates during busy election campaigns — to ensure that as many Canadians as possible were exposed to them. The debates were distributed to other broadcasters and partners to ensure wide access. The first televised leaders’ debates occurred in 1968.
In 2011, more than 10 million Canadians tuned in the English-language debates and more than four million watched the French-language debates on prime time television and on the web.
University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman said the Conservatives haven’t wanted to take part in any debates since they were in opposition.
“Why don’t they want to have any scrums? Why doesn’t he want to answer more than five questions on the campaign trail? Why doesn’t he want anybody that is not vetted being at his events?” Wiseman said.
“It’s very shrewd, they control access completely. And because he is the king newsmaker in the country, the media have to cover you anyway, whatever you do or say. They don’t have to cover the opposition parties.”
The Maclean’s debate, to which May and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have agreed, will be hosted by columnist Paul Wells and take place during the summer before the writ is dropped, which could force opposition parties to reveal their electoral platforms before the official contest begins.
McGrath, who is also the NDP’s national director, said her party has not turned down any debates to date.
“Our interest is having our leader debate the prime minister, in particular, and we want more Canadians to have access to those important decision-making moments.”
Mulcair, Harper and Beaulieu have agreed to take part in the TVA debate.
Mulcair is trying to get himself known to more Canadians — especially vis-à-vis Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — and believes more debates will serve him well.
In February, Mulcair said he is “a big fan of debates.”
“I enjoy the back-and-forth of a lively debate, and the more open, the better. And frankly, if there was leaders’ debate every week of the next election campaign, I’d be there front and centre,” he told reporters on Feb. 25.
Trudeau told reporters he has received several proposals but has not agreed to anything yet.
“I have said no to nothing, I have said yes to nothing, except we will debate,” he said.
Trudeau said there is a lot of political manoeuvring surrounding the debates. He seemed to suggest that summer time, when people are outside with their families, barbecuing and enjoying the cottage, isn’t the best time to have a political debate. But he said he looks forward to the debates and will study any proposals that come forward.
“We are still five months away from debates, and I think it’s a little early to be making declaratory statement about [which one] one will or will not participate in,” he said. “I think that during a political campaign, it is important that people have an opportunity to hear from all the different leaders, to watch them measure themselves against each other. It’s a really important part of our political landscape, and I look forward those debates.”
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