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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper adjusts his translation aid during a joint news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, May 8, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper adjusts his translation aid during a joint news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, May 8, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

POLITICS

Conservatives reject broadcasters’ debates, accept independent proposals Add to ...

The federal Conservative Party is refusing to participate in the traditional leaders’ debates run by a consortium of broadcasters including CBC, CTV and Global and will instead take part in as many as five independently staged debates in the run-up to the fall federal election.

The decision by the Harper Conservatives to walk away from the consortium seriously erodes the control that major broadcasters such as CBC have had in determining how federal political leaders square off on TV before national ballots.

Conservative campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke said the Tories have accepted invitations to participate in two rival debates – one organized by Maclean’s magazine and its owner Rogers, and the other by French-language broadcaster TVA. He said they’re open to participating in three more but that the party will not accept further proposals from the consortium.

Mr. Teneycke until recently was a senior executive at Sun News Network, a now-defunct media outlet that made no secret of its distaste for CBC, the taxpayer-funded broadcaster.

The Conservative decision puts pressure on other federal political parties to follow suit in abandoning the consortium-run debates which have largely controlled these events for decades.

Neither the NDP nor the Liberals said they would reject the traditional consortium-run debates on Tuesday.

The New Democrats said they have also accepted Maclean’s debate invite, accepted TVA’s in principle, subject to a discussion about format, as well as a third debate put forward by an initiative on women’s equality called Up for Debate.

Anne McGrath, national director of the NDP, chastised the Conservatives for “thinking they get to dictate the terms of the debates.”

But Ms. McGrath also made it clear the New Democrates want to debate the Prime Minister, a priority which could be later used as as an excuse to skip the consortium debates that the Tories are now boycotting.

“In particular we want our leader [Mr. Mulcair] to debate the Prime Minister because we think he would be an awesome prime minister and he would do very well in debates with the Prime Minister,” Ms. McGrath said. “So we want him debating the Prime Pinister, laying out his experience and his plans to replace this prime minister. So that’s No. 1 for us.”

The NDP isn’t rejecting the broadcast consortium, though. “We remain open to all debates.”

The decision by the NDP and Conservatives to embrace new debates organized by other media outlets or interest groups doesn’t prevent enterprises such as CBC or CTV from bringing their television cameras to these events and broadcasting them, as well, to Canadians.

“We have received debate proposals from a variety of print and broadcast media, as well as other organizations. We believe the diversity and innovation inherent in different debate sponsors and approaches is valuable,” Mr. Teneycke explained.

“Therefore we have decided to decline the proposal from the broadcast consortium for four debates, which for practical purposes would effectively exclude other media and organizations capable of hosting debates of this nature.”

Mr. Teneycke said in addition to the two debates the Conservatives have selected, they are also “prepared to participate in up to one more French debate and up to two more English debates.”

The Globe and Mail is one of the organizations that is submitting a rival proposal this week to host a full leaders’ debate.

The Liberal Party appeared surprised by the Conservative move, calling the Tories’ rejection of the consortium debate proposal wrong.

“Political parties should not be able to cherry pick debates on an ad hoc basis,” spokesman Olivier Duchesneau said.

He said the Liberals are not abandoning the consortium proposal.

“We entered the consortium process in good faith, unfortunately it seems the Conservatives once again, do not want the broadest number of Canadians to hear from Mr. Harper,” he said.

“We believe in doing the right thing for voters. We will continue to consider the other debate proposals that have been put forward. We are waiting to see which proposals come forward from all of the country’s TV networks and other media properties before committing to any debates,” he said.

Mr. Duschesneau said the circumstances engineered by the Conservatives demonstrate why there should be an independent, non-partisan commission to manage debates.

“This kind of commission will be in our platform and we will bring forward legislation if we form government.”

The consortium, including the CBC, has been in charge of federal election debates for decades, but parties have sometimes chafed over the format dictated by the broadcasters.

The Conservatives, in particular, are keen to lessen the influence of the consortium over these debates. They want to vary the format to allow more time for one-on-one debate between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Both the NDP and the Liberals say they are open to other propositions.

A spokesman for a member of the consortium says it would not suffer if there were competing debates but says the current structure allows for higher overall viewership.

The 2015 federal election is set for Oct. 19 under the fixed-date election law, a change from past ballots that introduces more predictability for parties and the media.

The shakeup in debates this year might mean a leader’s debate before the official campaign begins, such as in early September.

Paul Wells, political editor at Maclean’s, said Maclean’s is hoping to stage its debate as early as August.

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