Federal election 2015: Conservatives shake up debates with pre-campaign plan

Canadians may get to see federal party leaders face off in as many as five debates before they head to the polls next fall, now that the Conservative Party has officially rebuffed the proposal by the media consortium that traditionally organizes leaders' debates in favour of competing offers from individual networks.

Broadcast consortium invites rejected as Conservatives accept rival bids from TVA, Maclean's/Rogers

The 2011 leaders' debate, above may have been the last aired by a consortium of broadcasters. The Conservative Party has accepted proposals by TVA and Maclean's/Rogers to host two separate debates, in French and English, respectively. (Canadian Press)

Canadians may get to see federal party leaders face off in as many as five debates before they head to the polls next fall. 

The Conservative Party has officially rebuffed the proposal by the media consortium that traditionally organizes leaders' debates in favour of competing offers from individual networks.

In a statement released Tuesday, former Sun Media executive-turned-Tory spokesman Kory Teneycke said his party is "pleased" to accept proposals by TVA and Maclean's/Rogers to host two separate debates, in French and English, respectively, sometime between now and the fixed election date of Oct. 19.

The move effectively ends the monopoly previously enjoyed by the election broadcast consortium.

Party strategists Kory Teneycke, Anne McGrath and Rob Silver discuss the negotiations surrounding the federal leaders' debates 16:40

The ad hoc committee, which is made up of the major broadcasters, including CBC, CTV, Global and, until relatively recently, TVA, traditionally takes charge of negotiating with participating political parties over the timing, format and staging of the debates. 

The programs are then aired live by all participating networks across the country.

Consortium 'effectively excluded' other media: Tories

"We believe the diversity and innovation inherent in different debate sponsors and approaches is valuable," Teneycke said.

That's why his party decided to reject the consortium proposal to host four debates, he said  — an offer that would "effectively exclude other media and organizations capable of hosting debates of this nature."

He said the "increased certainty associated with the timeframe preceding a fixed election date" has made it possible to hold more debates.

"We believe this serves the public interest, and we are therefore prepared to participate in up to one more French debate and up to two more English debates," or up to five debates total — something Teneycke says would be "a record in modern Canadian political history."

The party is actively soliciting invitations from other media organizations, including CBC/Radio Canada.

"We look forward to reviewing those proposals in a timely manner and will communicate further once that review is complete."

Mixed reaction from NDP, Liberals

New Democrat sources have confirmed that their leader has accepted every invitation so far, including TVA, Rogers/Maclean's and Up For Debate, a coalition of women's groups calling for a nationally broadcast leaders' debate on issues identified by women, including economic inequity, leadership and violence against women and girls.

The party is also open to adding more debates to the campaign calendar.

The Liberals, however, seem distinctly less enthusiastic at the prospect.

Party spokesman Olivier Duschesneau said his party had "entered the consortium process in good faith."

"Unfortunately it seems the Conservatives once again do not want the broadest number of Canadians to hear from Mr. Harper," he said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

"Canadians should hear from their leaders across the country, in town halls, on the road in their communities and in debates."

Duschesneau said the Liberals will wait to see the full range of proposals put forward by "all of the country's TV networks and other media properties" before their leader will commit to any debate.

He added that his party's eventual election platform will include a pledge to bring in legislation to create an independent commission to oversee debates.

"Political parties and broadcasters should not be able to cherry pick debates on an ad hoc basis," he said.

Consortium pleased with plans

Consortium spokeswoman Liliane Le said Canada's major broadcast news organizations believe it is in the best interest of democracy to expose as many Canadians as possible to leaders' debates, including those put on by other organizations.

"The Broadcast Consortium – CBC News, ICI Radio-Canada Télé, CTV News and Global News – is pleased to learn that Canada's political parties are willing to participate in multiple debates," she said in a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon.

The consortium has never viewed itself as a monopoly, she said. 

"In addition to the core Consortium group which produces the debates, the debates historically have been distributed to other broadcasters," she said. 

It has extended invitations to the five major parties — including the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois — to participate in consortium-run debates, with a meeting set for next week in Ottawa. The consortium believes political parties will give equal consideration to its offer. 

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