In 1984, women's issues got their own election debate

Abortion, equal pay and trust were among the topics the three male party leaders debated before a live audience of mostly women during the 1984 federal election campaign.

Equal pay and abortion were among the topics discussed before a live audience

Equal pay, abortion and pension reform may be topics for the 1984 federal election debate on women's issues. 2:54

In August, the broadcast consortium hosting the English-language debate for the 2019 federal election announced its panel of moderators.

The list for the Oct. 7 debate consists of five women: Rosemary Barton of CBC News, Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, Dawna Friesen of Global News, Lisa LaFlamme from CTV News and Althia Raj from HuffPost Canada.

The last time a federal debate featured an all-woman panel was 35 years ago — and the focus of that debate was limited to women's issues.

"It went on in two languages in six separate mini-debates," said the CBC's Knowlton Nash, describing the leaders' debate organized by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

The panel for the debate, all women, included former CBC journalist Kay Sigurjonsson, writer Eleanor Wachtel, newspaper columnist Renée Rowan, and Montreal professor Francine Harel-Giasson.

The participants were Liberal Leader John Turner, Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent.  

What to expect

The day before it took place, CBC reporter Marguerite McDonald gave viewers of The National a preview of what they might see in the debate scheduled for Aug. 15, 1984.

"Economic issues are likely to be high on the list of questions," said McDonald, who outlined the state of pay equity — or lack thereof — at the time.

Abortion was another topic that seemed sure to come up.

"Both Turner and Mulroney have chosen to walk the tightrope between pro-life and pro-choice groups," explained McDonald. 

'Why should we trust you now?'

The three male politicians are well aware their answers could affect how women vote, says reporter Bill Casey. 2:06

The following night, several CBC reporters filed stories on the debate on women's issues.

"The debate on women's issues covered a lot of ground tonight," said Nash, at the start of The National. "Economic equality, world peace, cutting the deficit, abortion."

Correspondent Bill Casey was first up with a recap of the evening's discussion, which had taken place in a meeting hall donated by the Federation of Women Teachers' Associations of Ontario. 

"The three male politicians were quite aware that their answers to tonight's questions on women's issues would likely have a direct effect on the outcome of the election," said Casey.

In the end, it came down to the issue of trust.

"In this debate tonight you've all made a lot of promises," said Sigurjonsson, asking the debate's final question. "But given how dismal the record is ... why should we trust you now?" 

Both Turner and Mulroney assured the audience that they would do their utmost for women.   

"I made a fundamental commitment to my party, when I sought its leadership, that nothing would be higher on my agenda than to achieve economic equality for women ... as far as I could achieve it," replied Turner. 

"We realize the collective failure of this country vis-a-vis women, and all I can tell you that I'm earnestly and genuinely committed to its correction," said Mulroney.

The viewers respond 

Callers had a lot of thoughts on the debate's format and broadcast quality, and they weren't afraid to let the broadcast consortium know. 1:52

The style of the debate seemed to get just as much attention as the substance.

"This debate on women's issues had a live audience ... that had been instructed to be quiet and show no favouritism to any candidate at any time," said reporter Jason Moscovitz. 

Of that audience of 2,000, half had obtained tickets from the organizers and another 600 from the donors of the venue, according to the Globe and Mail.

"Time and again the instructions weren't followed," added Moscovitz, as the audience was shown cheering with gusto.

Unlike other debates, which were conducted in a single official language, the discussion of women's issues switched back and forth between the two with a simultaneous voice-over in the other language.

"The translation was most tedious," said Moscovitz. "Station switchboards across the country were swamped with angry viewers who didn't like what they saw."