Robert Hurst is the former president of CTV News and a member of the Network Debate Consortium from 2005-08.
For years my network colleagues and I would sit for hours listening to party hacks offering up a plethora of excuses as to why their leaders could not possibly debate on television. The parties – particularly the Liberals and the Conservatives – would obfuscate, threaten and then veto the television networks in an effort to limit their leaders’ exposure to live cameras.
For example, during the 2005 debate negotiations, the networks proposed a debate every single week. The TV networks had launched all-news cable channels and had lots of airtime. But the initiative was barely on the table when the Liberals and Conservatives killed it. They said it would interfere with travel schedules.
The networks suggested moving the debates east and west, outside central Canada. The Conservatives wanted Calgary. Nobody else did. Vancouver was a no-go for the Bloc Québécois because its leader didn’t travel outside Quebec.
The networks proposed live audiences. The parties rejected that because people would applaud or boo and hiss. What if the seats were filled with the party faithful, the networks responded? Nope, they said – they couldn’t control their own.
The networks wanted debates close to the election date, when the voters were tuned in. No way, said the parties: If their leader made a faux pas, campaign war rooms needed a couple of weeks to recover.
The parties always demanded a veto on which journalists would appear. Eventually the Network Consortium dropped journalists altogether because their questions were taking up valuable airtime.
Why are the parties and the leaders so hesitant to embrace television debates?
The simple answer is that they’re afraid of them. They are afraid of a Nixonian drop of sweat, afraid of a fluster or a bluster or a spilled water glass. They are afraid of an opponent who breaks the rules and, say, brings a chalkboard like Stockwell Day did in 2000. They are afraid of a vicious uppercut like Brian Mulroney landed on John Turner in 1984 when he retorted, “You had an option, sir.”
Television is a powerful tool that can capture and transmit enormous amounts of information. It is an electronic town square, ideally suited for democratic elections, where ideas and leaders are held to the light and scrutinized. It’s also a stage that party leaders and their handlers can’t easily control. It’s much safer to buy television time to sell your message.
There are legitimate party complaints at the negotiating table. The leader with the most to lose is usually the Prime Minister. And the Prime Minister’s debate negotiators often complain that the other debaters are there to gang up on the Prime Minister, which they usually do.
Which parties get onto the stage is also always a hotly contested question. In 2008, the networks wanted Green Party Leader Elizabeth May included. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton responded with hard nos; if she was invited, they wouldn’t show up. The networks threatened to cancel the leaders’ debate altogether – one of the few times the TV networks showed some backbone. Soon, Mr. Layton and then Mr. Harper backed off. It was Ms. May’s first time in the debates.
Over the years, the Television Consortium was heavily criticized for failing to produce more and better debates. Much of this came from the print media, which accepted the artifice from party back offices.
The TV networks, though, were mostly deferential to the parties. We often discussed placing an empty podium for a leader who refused to show, as Maclean’s did for Justin Trudeau at its debate in September, but we never seriously considered it. We wanted to be respectful. The party hacks interpreted that as weakness. The TV networks cowed to the bullying.
This election campaign was supposed to be different. The Election Commission would present debates that would use television to illuminate the platforms and the candidates for the electorate.
But the outcome has been abysmal. A single debate in each official language. In central Canada. Regional and fringe candidates will waste airtime. The journalists are back on stage, also wasting airtime. The debate is two hours. It will air in the West while people are busy with commutes or dinnertime. That’s perfect for the parties.
My own experience leads me to believe that the Election Commission is complicit with, or has been bullied by, the parties to again limit television debates.
In most Western democracies, leaders’ debates are frequent events during elections. Voters crave them. The rare exceptions are the United Kingdom and Canada. In the United States, the networks and cable channels fill the airwaves, including ours, with hundreds of hours of live political debates.
Yet here we are, stuck in 1968, the year of Canada’s first television debate.
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