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Broadcasters rule out one-on-one debate between Harper and Ignatieff, confirm May's exclusion

Green Party leader Elizabeth May takes the podium to comment on her exclusion from the televised leaders debate during the Canadian federal election, in Vancouver, British Columbia March 30, 2011.


Canada's broadcasters have ruled out a face-off between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff and will exclude the Green Party from the upcoming official election debates.

The decision to carry debates involving only the leaders of the four main parties in Parliament follows a public battle between the Conservative and Liberal leaders, but also controversial backroom dealings between the country's major television stations and four biggest political parties. After hours of private and public discussions on Wednesday, the consortium of broadcasters announced a late-night agreement by issuing an ultimatum to the representatives of the four parties, a source involved in the discussions said.

In a bid to embrace some form of change, the English- and French-language debates on April 12 and 14, respectively, will feature one-on-one exchanges between the leaders of the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.

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The issue of the debates blew up after Green Party Leader Elizabeth May launched a social-network campaign to be included in the two debates after the consortium had ruled out her participation because her party has no MPs in the House of Commons.

Their veto trained a light on the sometimes murky process behind the debates, and raised questions about transparency in the two most widely seen events of the campaign.

Mr. Harper raised the possibility of changing the debate format during a campaign stop in Brampton, Ont., saying he would welcome a one-on-one debate against his Liberal counterpart.

"After all, the real choice in this election is a choice between a Conservative government or an Ignatieff-led government that all of these other parties will support," Mr. Harper said.

Mr. Ignatieff quickly responded: "Any time, any place."

However, the Conservatives proposed to prolong the all-leaders' debate to include a separate face-off between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff, while the Liberals proposed to participate in the traditional debates, and a distinct one-on-one confrontation.

A senior Conservative official said on Wednesday night that despite the public challenges issued by the two parties leaders, the one-on-one idea was unworkable.

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The other opposition parties rejected the idea for a smaller debate, with NDP Leader Jack Layton saying the Conservatives are afraid of him.

The debates were organized by the consortium and the political parties behind closed doors, without any open debate on the status of Ms. May.

"Having considered the broad scope of reaction to its initial invitation to the parties, the consortium reiterates that its decision was unanimous. The decision was based on the application of journalistic principles, and the fact that the Green Party has never elected a member to Parliament," the consortium said in a statement.

Still, the head of the consortium acknowledged the criteria for inclusion can change from one election to another. "There are no written criteria," said Troy Reeb, the vice-president of news for Shaw Media, which includes Global TV.

Politicians and broadcasters approach the event with clashing agendas: while the federal leaders see it as an opportunity to improve their standing and diminish that of their opponents, the Canadian television networks do whatever they can to reduce the losses they incur because they cannot run advertising during the events.

But just as cable channels have taken over broadcasters as the primary television medium, at least one local channel in Ontario is volunteering to take the place of the major networks. Channel Zero on Wednesday said it would invite all leaders - including Ms. May - to a debate in its Hamilton studios that would be made available to other stations as requested.

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The Aurea Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Peter and Melanie Munk to support Canadian institutions involved in the study and development of public policy - said it would foot the bill.

The Liberals and the Conservatives said a Harper-Ignatieff debate would highlight the real choice facing Canadians on May 2, namely the formation of a Conservative or a Liberal government.

The Bloc argued that Mr. Harper was simply trying to avoid an event that he doesn't fully control.

The debate over debates goes back decades in Canada. Last year, the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University published a report that called for reforms that would include transparent criteria, but the effort stalled.

On Wednesday, the Green Party announced it had hired an attorney to contest the exclusion, but the odds of success seem low: The legal question of who must be invited to a nationally televised debate was settled in 1995, when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that broadcasters were not obligated to include every party leader when organizing televised events.

The Green Party raised the challenge after its exclusion from the 1988 debate, arguing that CBC, CTV and Global violated the Television Broadcasting Act by not providing equal time to each political party. The Ontario court ruled that the debates were not partisan events, which meant equal time rules didn't apply. "While participants in a debate may very well be partisan, the program itself, because it presented more than one view, was not," the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission wrote in its notice explaining the decision.

The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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