We need a better way to organize federal election leaders’ debates, so citizens are better served.

Debates often decide elections in this country. Citizens who may not have paid much attention to the campaign seem to think: “I guess I should pay attention to this event tonight because I’m going to have to vote soon.” And so, at least in the past, Canadians have tuned in.

I say in the past, because during the 2015 federal election campaign, there was no single, major debate event as in previous elections because, for a variety of reasons, not all of the parties wanted it to happen. And so we got several different kinds of leaders’ debates, some on air, some online, but none had the impact of that one, big event. While I like the idea of democratizing the debate process, I think we, as an electorate, were ill served by not having a single night during the campaign where every channel was on the leaders, encouraging lots of discussion the next day at work or at the kitchen table because ten million people watched.

In my view, the haphazard way in which election debates come together cries out for some kind of permanent institution that organizes the debates, makes the rules for them, and determines who gets to participate.

Before 2015, when an election was called an ad-hoc group called the “media consortium” — essentially, the biggest television channels in the country — assembled, negotiated with (some) party representatives, decided on the participants, and agreed on the rules. That model blew up during the campaign to elect the 42nd Parliament.

What could replace it?

There’s a new movement forming whose members find this situation increasingly intolerable. Nicknamed the “U-15,” they represent civil society and some of Canada’s largest universities and have a completely different vision for how debates might roll out in the 2019 federal election. They’ve been meeting informally to kick-start a national discussion on how to improve things, starting with the place where the election debates happen.

“American debates take place on university campuses,” says David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto. “It sends a signal that this is an important place for discourse, that truth matters, that the university is facilitating the democratic process in seeking the viewpoints of the candidates. It’s the felicitous connection of civil discourse and a national exchange.”

The concept is being pushed by Rudyard Griffiths, who moderates and organizes the Munk Debates and moderated the foreign policy debate in the 2015 election campaign. “Debates are the key piece of the election campaign these days,” says Griffiths. “And there’s an incredible amount of media coverage driven by the debate.”

Think of how many election outcomes were influenced by a leaders’ debate: Brian Mulroney over John Turner in 1984; Jack Layton over Michael Ignatieff in 2011; Mike Harris over Lyn McLeod in Ontario in 1995; Christy Clark over Adrian Dix in British Columbia in 2013. With campaigns that are so utterly scripted nowadays, the leaders’ debate may offer the one spontaneous moment in the entire campaign.

This so far informal group is tossing around several new ideas. For example, could we continue to have more than one leaders’ debate (in each language) during the campaign? While more debates might fragment the audience, it also could reduce the pressure on the leaders, since a candidate could overcome a bad first debate with a better performance next time out. That exact scenario happened in the American election in 2012. Barack Obama’s first debate performance was terrible. But it was much improved in the two ensuing debates, which might have saved his presidency.

If multiple leaders’ debates aren’t an option, what about having the finance minister debate the finance critics, or the foreign minister debate the foreign affairs critics, and so on? Again, the U-15 thinks more opportunities for more Canadians to further engage in the political process could be beneficial, and who knows, it could increase voter turnout, which in most elections is dangerously low.

In the United States, the debates used to be run by the League of Women Voters. Now, a bipartisan election commission runs them, makes the rules, and invites the participants. (This is for the general election, not the party nomination fights, of which the networks individually have taken control). Given that there is no permanent organization in Canada, could a truly independent commission, in partnership with universities, serve this function? Could it create some rules, where presently none exist? Could we stage debates before an audience rather than in an empty studio, which is now the case? If the debates were held on university campuses as they are in the US, how could we ensure that students didn’t use the occasion to disrupt the proceedings? Could a private foundation help defray the costs of moving the event outside a TV studio and onto a campus?

Clearly, there are still a ton of questions that need answering, but the people and organizations forming up behind this idea think it’s important to at least get a discussion going.

Once we’ve decided how we want to organize future election debates, we need to figure out how to run them to ensure citizens are well served. After watching most of the debates during this 2016 American presidential season, I’ve been struck by how rarely the moderators seem to care about eliciting information or actual debate out of the candidates. Rather, most of them seem interested in simply stirring up a food fight between Donald Trump and someone else. The worst by far was a debate organized by CNBC, during which not only did the journalists not ask intelligent questions designed to encourage debate, they also insulted the candidates as they asked those questions. It was an embarrassment.

Some reminders for moderators: the moderator’s mission is to get the candidates debating in an energetic but civilized fashion so the viewer is wiser by the end of it: the debates are not a platform for you to pontificate or make mischief. You must also resist the temptation to offer snide “asides” after you’ve heard an answer you don’t like. It’s not your job to evaluate the quality of the leaders’ answers. That’s actually the voters’ job.

So rather than go for a snarky tone, why not opt for nice, lean, brief, neutral questions that the leaders can actually debate?

  • “What would you do about the Syrian refugee crisis?”
  • “Do we still need the F-35 fighter jet?”
  • “How would you improve our relations with the United States?”

These questions are open-ended enough to kick-start the debate. Then, if you hear something in the responses that deserves following up because it doesn’t pass the sniff test, then follow up in more detail. But remember, this is a debate where the focus needs to be on the leaders, not the moderator.

Can we improve our election debates in Canada? I think so. Let’s begin the debate on how to make it happen.