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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion listen to the Green Party's Elizabeth May during the French-language election debate in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion listen to the Green Party's Elizabeth May during the French-language election debate in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Ignatieff, Harper to go one-on-one during television debates Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff will get that one-on-one debate he wanted with Stephen Harper - sort of.

The Liberal leader will face off against the prime minister for a grand total of 12 minutes in the nationally televised debates next week.

All four leaders will each get six minutes of face time with all of their opponents during the April 12 English debate and the April 14 French debate, which are returning to a more traditional format.

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Gone is the round table from the 2008 debates that was supposed to liven up the discussion. The lecterns are back.

The decision to go with one-on-ones came up during negotiations with the leaders, said producer Mark Bulgutch.

"Some people think the lecterns are more classic debating style, and so people on their feet are more aggressive ... whereas if you're sitting down, you're more of a chat," he said.

The debates, which have produced game-changing moments in the past, have been one of the most buzzworthy issues in the 2011 campaign.

Green Leader Elizabeth May touched off an online firestorm when she was barred from the televised discussions, appealing to Canadians to put pressure on the broadcasters' consortium to change their minds.

Mr. Ignatieff added fuel to the fire last week when he went on Twitter to take up Mr. Harper on his suggestion the two leaders should have their own one-on-one debate. "Any time, any place," Mr. Ignatieff tweeted.

Mr. Harper replied to Mr. Ignatieff's challenge by saying the Conservatives originally proposed a one-on-one debate, only to be greeted by stony Liberal silence.

The exchange sparked a social media frenzy, prompting comedian Rick Mercer's offer to host a one-on-one debate at a Toronto concert hall, along with $50,000 to each of the leaders' favourite charities as an added incentive.

So far, there are no signs that Ms. May will win her battle. The Federal Court of Appeal has refused to hear Ms. May's challenge before the first debate begins next Tuesday and the consortium has stood firm in its decision to exclude Ms. May.

There won't be any opening remarks this time. Each 117-minute debate will start with a pre-recorded question from the public. The leaders won't know in advance what questions they'll be asked.

Two of the leaders will face off for six minutes, then the other two leaders will be able to join in for a 13-minute discussion.

The whole cycle will be repeated five times before closing remarks, which will be limited to 45 seconds for each leader for a total of three minutes.

"We didn't even want the closing statements but the parties pushed for it," said Mr. Bulgutch. "Giving up three minutes of time seems like a reasonable compromise to me."

Producers say there will be some flexibility to the format. Stopwatches won't be used and the moderators can add to the line of questioning.

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