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Why there was no federal leaders' debate on TV in 1980

When Canadians headed to the polls in February 1980, they were lacking something we've come to expect in modern elections — a chance to see the prospective prime ministers duke it out in a televised debate.

Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals said no, which made the proposed televised debate a no-go

This Jan. 9, 1980 report lays out signals the Liberals were sending about opting out of a proposed leaders' debate. 2:22
When Canadians headed to the polls in February 1980, they were lacking something we've come to expect in modern elections — a chance to see the prospective prime ministers duke it out in a televised debate.

Seven million Canadians had reportedly tuned into a debate shown on TV involving NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, PC Leader Joe Clark and Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau ahead of the 1979 election.

But there wouldn't be a repeat of that widely watched spectacle in 1980, even though the same players were involved in the election occurring nine months after the previous trip to the polls. 

No need to get to know the leaders?

On Jan. 11, 1980, Trudeau formally declined to participate in a TV debate — with the Liberals claiming that Canadians were "already quite familiar" with the leaders involved in the election.

On Jan. 11, 1980, The National reports on Pierre Trudeau's decision to skip a proposed leaders' debate. 2:49

Ahead of the Liberals taking this position, there had been signals the debate-less outcome could occur.

The Liberals had been pushing for an alternative debate format, in which other party voices would take part in the debate in addition to the leaders. Trudeau's party also objected to having journalists participate in the debate — a sticking point they did not budge on. 

In any case, Trudeau's opponents didn't agree with the decision for the Liberal leader to reject participating in a televised debate.

'Trying to induce Canadians to forget'

PC Leader Joe Clark was not impressed with Pierre Trudeau's decision to opt out of a proposed leaders' debate in 1980. (The National/CBC Archives)

"I regret deeply that his action has stopped Canadians from having a debate among the leaders," Clark said, in reaction to Trudeau's decision to turn his back on a debate.

"It's part of their policy of trying to induce Canadians to forget what Pierre Elliott Trudeau did during the 11 years he was prime minister."

The PC leader was referring to Trudeau's long reign as prime minister, which had been upended in the May 1979 election that saw Clark and the Progressive Conservatives take power.

But the PC government fell in December of that year, which is what triggered the pending election contest.

'The height of arrogance' or shrewd strategy?

New Democrat Leader Ed Broadbent did not agree with Pierre Trudeau's decision to decline to participate in a proposed leaders' debate in 1980. (The National/CBC Archives)

Broadbent said it was "the height of arrogance" for Trudeau to decline a debate with opposing leaders.

But the CBC's David Halton reported that Liberal party sources had acknowledged the move to have Trudeau skip the debate was "a calculated risk," which was part of a strategy to keep the Liberal leader out of the spotlight as the party sought to defeat Clark.

The Tories and New Democrats kept up the pressure on Trudeau on the debate issue, but he and his party did not relent.

The Liberals, in fact, would go on to reject a revised debate proposal later in January, as shown in the report below.

On Jan. 22, 1980, The National reports on the Liberals' decision to again decline participating in a leaders' debate. 1:37

In the end, the Trudeau and the Liberals would return to power, while the Tories would form the Official Opposition.

Canadians have since had a chance to see at least one televised leaders' debate for each of the 10 federal elections that have occurred since 1980.