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Stephane Dion debates with Jack Layton, Stephen Harper, Gilles Duceppe and Elizabeth May on Oct. 1, 2008. (POOL/Reuters)
Stephane Dion debates with Jack Layton, Stephen Harper, Gilles Duceppe and Elizabeth May on Oct. 1, 2008. (POOL/Reuters)

Report calls for overhaul of political debates Add to ...

If Tom Axworthy and his think-tank have their way, Gilles Duceppe and his Bloc Québécois will be blocked from the televised English-language leaders' debate in future elections.

"It may be controversial," said Mr. Axworthy, former principal secretary to prime minister Pierre Trudeau and now chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University. "It's a perfectly fair and reasonable proposition if you think about it."

Since the Bloc runs no candidates in English-speaking Canada, he said, why should its leader take up 25 per cent of the time in a televised English debate?

Excluding the Bloc Leader is just one of several provocative recommendations in a report prepared by Mr. Axworthy's centre and researcher Michelle Rogers on how to improve televised political debates in Canada.

He said the way in which Canada runs its debates is "just about the worst" in the world.

Here's more: The debates would be mandatory and a leader who did not participate would see the public subsidy provided his or her political party cut.

Mr. Axworthy's centre also recommends that the Canada Elections Act create a "Canadian Debates Commission" to regulate the debates and take them away from the vagaries of the television networks. And in the final weeks of the campaign, the two leaders whose parties are highest in the public-opinion polls would square off against each other in one last televised debate.

The recommendations in the 120-page document form the background for debate at a roundtable to be held at Queen's University later this month - on the eve of a possible fall election campaign.

The paper and roundtable were first proposed last year as a result of the "real outrage" at the networks and political parties over the possible exclusion of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the 2008 debates, Mr. Axworthy said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton said they would boycott the debates if Ms. May were allowed to participate. Public pressure forced the two leaders to back down.

Mr. Axworthy said the political parties and the networks were "trying to do a dirty on the Canadian electorate" in secret. That has to change.

"We think debates are an important piece [of an election campaign]and that most people would agree we should have some fair rules to do it," said Mr. Axworthy.

Mr. Axworthy and other political observers despair at the way in which Canada's system is set up, with a consortium of television networks negotiating the terms of the debate with the political parties.

Mike Robinson has represented the Liberal Party in debate negotiations with the television networks since John Turner was Liberal leader and is in favour of establishing a commission that would take responsibility for the debates away from the networks. Right now, he said, the debates are driven by the networks' editorial and programming considerations.

However, he doesn't like the recommendation that would see the Bloc left out of the English-language debate.

"That causes me a little discomfort," said Mr. Robinson, noting there are anglophone voters in Quebec who would be denied hearing Mr. Duceppe debate.

The Bloc did not comment on the recommendation. The television consortium looking at how to frame potential debates this fall also would not comment.

Just how important are the debates, anyway? Liberal Party pollster Michael Marzolini says they are "wild cards." Very rarely is a knock-out punch delivered. But when one comes it can change perceptions, such as the 1984 debate in which Brian Mulroney hung responsibility for Liberal patronage appointments on then-prime-minister John Turner with the declaration: "You had an option, sir."

"If you walk out having lost, it could be a game-changer," Mr. Marzolini said.

Mr. Axworthy hopes to spur debate with his report and change the rules before the next election. "As it happened, we started this without any idea that there would be an election and serendipitously we've got a major report perhaps on the eve of one," he said. "It's the luck of the gods if you're in the think-tank business."

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