Debates commissioner David Johnston suggests separate debate for main contenders

Debates commissioner David Johnston is suggesting one way to improve leaders' debates in future elections might be to make room for an English and a French debate that include only the main contenders for prime minister.

2019 debates saw jump in audience numbers over 2015 election debates

Debates commissioner David Johnston said having six candidates on the debate stage may have been too many. Host Patrice Roy from Radio-Canada, centre, and Federal party leaders, left to right, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet before the Federal leaders french language debate in Gatineau, Que. on Thursday, October 10, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Debates commissioner David Johnston is suggesting one way to improve leaders' debates in future elections might be to make room for an English and a French debate that include only the main contenders for prime minister.

The former governor general was speaking at an event in Ottawa promoting his new book, entitled "Trust," and offered some thoughts about the debates during a question-and-answer session.

He acknowledged the widespread disapproval of the format of the English debate in the recent election campaign, which included six party leaders and five moderators.

"I think it's important that one has criticism," he said.

"I think the fact that we had six leaders participating made for a pretty busy stage, but the mandate that the debates commission, which I chair, was given was to permit into the debate a leader of (any) party who had a legitimate chance of electing candidates. That meant candidates in two ridings or more, and that's a fairly low bar."

One could argue the bar was too low, he said, but on the other hand, holding debates with all leaders allowed "voices from across the spectrum," he added.

That's why he's now floating the idea of a separate set of election debates with only major-party leaders as a potential future fix.

"There's an argument that you should have a debate with only two or three leaders and perhaps the ideal would be to have one debate in each of the two languages with two or three leaders and another debate in each of the two languages with six or seven."

One moderator rather than five would also make more sense, Johnston said.

Debate post-mortems

The debates commission is preparing a report on its work, which it must present to Parliament by March 31.

Whether these ideas will be included in the final recommendations is not clear, but Johnston said the commission has been hearing from a number of research groups and institutions that have performed their own post-mortems on the debates.

The federal government formed the commission to organize officially sanctioned leaders' debates after the 2015 campaign saw leaders, including then-prime minister Stephen Harper and Opposition leader Tom Mulcair, decide not to appear in traditional contests organized by a consortium of broadcasters. Instead, other media outlets, foundations and technology companies organized their own debates with varying levels of participation.

Johnston, before serving as governor general, was a law professor and university president and moderated several leaders' debates himself.

Audience numbers up

One thing the commission has been looking closely at is the number of Canadians who watched the debates and in what ways.

There was a "dramatic jump" in the penetration levels of the leaders' debates in this election compared to the ones held in 2015, and also a sharp increase in the number of people who watched through social media and not on traditional television, Johnston said.

"I think we have to understand that the digital revolution has taken hold of young people in ways that create waves of change that we haven't seen before."

All six party leaders participated in the two the official commission debates held during the fifth week of the campaign. Four of the leaders appeared in a second French-only debate hosted by the French television station TVA — former Green Party leader Elizabeth May and People's Party leader Maxime Bernier were not invited. Two other non-commission debates ran into trouble when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted not to participate in them. One of them, hosted by Maclean's, went ahead without Trudeau while the Munk debate on foreign policy was cancelled.

The notion of compelling party leaders to participate in debates was studied prior to the creation of the debates commission, and the conclusion was reached that it was "not Canadian to require people to be at the podium," Johnston said.

This is one reason why he says he is "shying away" from this as one of his final recommendations.

"What we will recommend, I think, if we don't go that route, is to try to create such a climate of expectation, dare I say trust, so that it would be very awkward for a leader of one of the principal parties to say, 'I'm not going to participate in at least two debates.' "

When asked about the election debates last week on Parliament Hill, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould mainly dodged reporters' questions, saying only that she's looking forward to seeing the commission's final report.

"We saw that a lot of Canadians watched those debates. They tuned in, they were interested and we're going to learn from those experiences."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.


  • In an earlier version of this story The Canadian Press incorrectly said all six major federal party leaders attended the TVA debate. Only four leaders attended, former Green Party leader Elizabeth May and People's Party leader Maxime Bernier were not invited.
    Nov 12, 2019 5:42 PM ET


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?