The Future of Leaders’ Debates

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Happening Now Thursday, January 25, 2018 View Count = 2679

The Future of Leaders’ Debates

Earlier this month, the Government of Canada opened online consultations on the issue of leadership debates in elections—namely, should they be organized differently and, if so, how?  

This blog is all about demystifying what you need to know to participate in the process.



Are you one of the millions of Canadians who tuned in to the watch a leadership debate during the 2015 or 2011 federal election? Then you probably have an opinion about what you watched and heard. Good? Not so good?

Have you never watched a leaders’ debate? Then you may have some ideas and suggestions for how to get more people like you to tune in.

Leadership debates are one of the central events of an election campaign, and voters turn to them in order to better understand policy ideas, leaders’ personalities and, sometimes, what is on the mind of fellow Canadians. In short, leadership debates should foremost serve the public interest, so if debates can be organized or designed to better engage and inform Canadians,  that’s well worth doing.


What’s the context of leadership debates right now?

There is no guarantee in law that leadership debates will happen, which party leaders will be there, or where Canadians will be able to watch or listen to the debates. This comes as a surprise to many voters.

To date, debates have generally been organized between media organizations and political parties. In the past, television broadcasters have worked together as a consortium to organize debates. But last election, print media (e.g. Maclean’s, Globe and Mail) and social media companies (e.g. Facebook, YouTube) also got together to host debates.


So, what are the issues at play?

Though there was a greater variety of debates in 2015, viewership numbers were lower than in 2011. One concern is that leadership debates could be better distributed to reach more people.

A second major concern is that much of the debate terms are negotiated “behind closed doors”, and the interests of media organizations and party leaders may compromise the public’s interest when it comes to the final product: the debate itself. These negotiations typically happen in the midst of the campaign, rather than well in advance, which also makes these negotiations fraught with tension and uncertainty.

The terms of debate include:

  • The date and time it happens;
  • The party leaders who are invited to participate;
  • The format of the debate (e.g. number of questions, duration of answers, replies to other leaders’ answers); and
  • The moderator.


What are the alternatives?

The Government is asking whether there should be an independent person or body (“commissioner” or “commission”) appointed to oversee the organization of leadership debates.

And if there should be a commission, where does their responsibility begin and end? Who should appoint the commissioner?

There is a spectrum of options. One idea is to create a robust commission that is empowered to set the rules and, with media partners, plan and deliver the debates. The U.S. relies on the Commission for Presidential Debates, which is a nonprofitthat fundraises to deliver presidential debates on university campuses during the election.

A more mid-range option is an office that exists to issue guidelines to media companies and political parties and to arbitrate conflicts during their negotiations—but media companies would still produce and deliver the debates.

There are a host of variations. The bottom line is how to introduce greater impartiality in the planning of debates while ensuring the result is something Canadians will tune in to watch.  


How much time do I have to participate?

The online consultation closes on February 9, 2018—so you have just over two weeks to share your views.


How do I share my views?

The online consultation page is here:

The online interface is straightforward enough: a text box allows you to write in your reply. You should be able to copy-and-paste from another document, but note that any bullet points and other formatting will likely be lost.

You must also agree to the Government’s privacy statement in order to submit your feedback.

If you’re planning to provide input, why not share your views with other MPs as well? The Procedure and House Affairs Committee, which is comprised of MPs from the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP, is studying leadership debates as well. Their report will make a recommendation for the Government to consider. You can pass along your ideas to the committee by mail, e-mail or fax.

By mail:

Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs
Sixth Floor, 131 Queen Street
House of Commons
Ottawa ON K1A 0A6

By e-mail: [email protected]

By fax: 613-947-3089

In-person consultations are taking place through a series of roundtable discussions being held at academic institutions across the country. However, these discussions are by invite only to civil society, media and academic stakeholders, and wrap up this week.



If you want to know more about the issue of leadership debates in Canada, consider the following resources:

  1. March 2016 report produced by the Institute on Research and Public Policy—this is a very thorough overview of issues with the current practice of organizing leadership debates:

  2. A 2009 summary authored by Michelle Rogers with the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy—this includes discussions what other countries do to organize debates:

  3. A parliamentary committee has already been studying this issue over several meetings, and you can see who has appeared as witnesses with their testimony:

  4. Samara Canada is among the organizations invited to appear at the parliamentary committee. Read our remarks on the Samara blog:

On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g