Voters’ needs, not the agendas of the parties and the media, should set the stage for leaders’ debates.

Canadians have a right to watch their party leaders debate at election time, a right that should be enshrined in law.

The reason debates between those aspiring to be prime minister are so important is simple: they give voters a “third window” on a campaign that they must otherwise watch through the imperfect prisms of the parties themselves and the media.

Parties devote enormous money and energy to informing voters at election time about their leaders and their policies. We get emails, leaflets in the mailbox, knocks at the door and the TV ads — all those TV ads.

Research suggests that voters get a depressingly large amount of their information at election time from television advertising. To state the obvious, the ads are simple, short, one-sided and too-often negative, and the information they convey is frequently partial to the point of distortion.

The media, of course, play an important role in relaying information to voters with a critical perspective that campaign ads lack. But in selecting what deserves public attention, the media apply their own “news values,” such as novelty and conflict, which do not mirror the needs of information-hungry voters.

Voters get a depressingly large amount of their information at election time from television advertising.

As former journalists and current journalism professors, we can tell you that these “values” are inculcated in journalism schools. And while novelty and conflict in stories serve the needs of the media to build and sustain audience, they do not necessarily give voters what they need.

Journalists who doubt this can try a simple experiment: watch a leaders’ debate on the living room couch next to a friend or relative. What they will discover is that when leaders start repeating facts and arguments familiar from the campaign trail, they will be tempted to reach for their smartphones to tweet out “Boring!” just when the person next to them starts getting interested.

Partisan voters, whose minds are already made up, may cheer on their leader as if it were a boxing match. Like journalists, they may be looking for the “knockout punch,” so long as it is delivered by their chosen champion.

But undecided voters approach a leaders’ debate not as a sporting match, nor as a TV reality show, but as a unique opportunity to hear the leaders’ proposals and to evaluate their characters. Debates, with their combination of exposition and interaction between candidates, are surprisingly good at giving undecided voters what they want and need.

So what’s the problem?

Canada had its first televised election debate in 1968 and has had at least one French and one English debate in every election since 1984. However, many Canadians who have grown accustomed to debates as a central event in election campaigns would be surprised to learn how rickety and haphazard the process for delivering them has been.

For most of their history, the leaders’ debates have been organized by a consortium of major broadcasters in negotiation with the political parties — negotiations that are conducted behind closed doors. Inevitably, networks brought their own agendas, sometimes hoping to avoid time conflicts with hockey games or big-revenue American drama shows. They produced the debates like TV shows, imposing news and production values that may have generated sparks but often not the detailed information that undecided voters are seeking. And when it came to deciding whether to include a smaller-party leader, such as the Greens’ Elizabeth May, the networks tended to see that as a programming decision: would she generate more interest, or would she complicate the format?

As for the political parties, they showed up at debate negotiations angling for formats, rules and times they thought would showcase their candidate or minimize any damage they might anticipate. When it came to deciding which leaders to invite, naturally they acted out of undiluted strategic calculation.

What was always absent from these negotiations was the pure representation of the public interest, however hard the broadcasters worked to portray that as their role.

In the last election, Stephen Harper, who had always resented the “tyranny” of the networks, shook off their grasp, refusing to participate in any debate organized by the consortium. Instead, he invited other organizations to put together debates that he and the other leaders could decide whether to attend. When the picking and choosing was done, there were five debates, two in each official language plus one on foreign policy that aspired to being bilingual. There was something to be said for having more debates and more varied formats that gave voters more opportunities to assess the leaders.

But the process of deciding which debates would occur and which would not was shambolic, and determined largely by the strategic agendas of the parties and the media organizations that mounted them. What was more troublesome was that because the debates were organized without the collaboration of the major networks, they were haphazardly promoted and difficult for some voters to find. In the end there were more debates but fewer viewers.

The major English-language networks, Global, CTV and CBC, did not air any of the debates. The debate with the most viewers was organized by Maclean’s magazine in the middle of the summer at the very outset of an unusually long campaign. It was broadcast over a stitched-together group of channels including City, Omni and CPAC and drew fewer than 40 percent of the number of viewers who tuned in to the 2011 English-language debate in the middle of that campaign.

A debate a few weeks before voting day on all the networks becomes a major campaign event that voters know about and can easily find. It creates a unique democratic moment, a shared experience that voters anticipate, discuss on social media and chew over the next day at work or at Sunday dinner.

No one seriously disputes that these debates are useful to voters. No one should be comfortable with the idea that a party leader might one day put the kibosh on any debates at all for strategic reasons, or that a debate might occur but be hard for voters to find.

That’s why we think there should be a new process that puts the public interest ahead of that of either broadcasters or political parties. The party leaders should be required by law to participate in English and French debates organized by Elections Canada during the election writ period. The aim of the debates should be to elicit information from the candidates while also providing significant interaction among them, understanding that there is no perfect format and none that will ever be entirely free from criticism.

A party whose leader chooses not to attend would be subject to a substantial but not debilitating penalty, perhaps a period of several days during which it could not broadcast advertising. The television networks that enjoy the privilege — a very lucrative privilege — of access to our airwaves should be required as a condition of licence to air the debates when Elections Canada designates them to do so.

We have rules for every other significant aspect of a campaign, from party nominations to spending to who can vote. Why not also have rules for debates?

The huge audiences for debates over the years demonstrate that the public wants this access to their leaders. They should have it — guaranteed.

This article is part of the Future of Leaders’ Debates special feature.