The 'dos & don'ts' of federal leader debates

Party leaders are prepping for Monday’s English-language debate and the stakes are high. Here are some debate dos and don’ts from a former PMO press secretary.

'There’s nothing wrong with saying, well, your question is wrong.’That actually shows strength and knowledge.'

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, centre, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh take part during the Maclean's/Citytv National Leaders Debate in September. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The party leaders are prepping for Monday's English-language debate, and the stakes are high.

Canada's first televised debate aired in 1968; although a lot has changed since then, some of the basic rules still apply — there are always winners and losers.

Patrick Gossage, founding chairman of Media Profile, remembers those early days. He was Pierre Trudeau's press secretary and is a veteran of the political arena. Here are his debate dos and don'ts: 

Know your opponent

Debates are full of candidates accusing rivals of alleged misdeeds. So, knowing their vulnerabilities could really make a point stick. And making eye contact can help gain the upper-hand.

"If you're accusing somebody of something, look at them, because that makes a better shot in television," said Gossage. 

Check out this example when former NDP leader Jack Layton highlighted former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's attendance record. 

WATCH: Former NDP leader Jack Layton highlighting former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's attendance record.

Former NDP leader Jack Layton highlights former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s attendance record. 0:15

But Gossage adds that fending off attack is just as important. 

"If you're being accused of something and you can parry that effectively, then you can kill it. But that's difficult sometimes."

Look at the camera, but not always

Debates can be tricky to navigate. On the one hand, candidates are facing off against their opponents, while simultaneously making a pitch to the public. 

"Looking at the camera too much looks phony in a debate. So don't look at it all the time," Gossage said. 

Subject matter for debates is often predictable Gossage says, so having several one-liners at the ready is vital.

That was the case for debates back in the day, but this week, The Weekly explored how social media, and viral moments, may have an even longer, lasting impact. 

Wendy Mesley spoke with Melissa Lantsman, former Conservative strategist and vice-president of public affairs for Hill+Knowlton, on a panel with Farouk Karim, Former NDP caucus press secretary, and Diamond Isinger, former Liberal digital strategist, on how these moments play out today. Here's what she had to say:

WATCH: Melissa Lantsman on the lasting viral moment

Wendy Mesley speaks with Melissa Lantsman, a former Conservative strategist and vice-president of public affairs for Hill+Knowlton, Farouk Karim, a former NDP Caucus press secretary, and Diamond Isinger, a former Liberal digital strategist, on how these moments play out today. 1:11

Go on offence

Gossage remembers something his old boss pushed for — challenging the question. 

"Offence is better than defence," he said. "Challenging is better than to admit."

With five moderators, all of whom are journalists, it's likely tomorrow's debate will be filled with difficult questions. Gossage says they'll all be vying to ask the toughest questions, but sometimes those questions are based on false premises.

"There's nothing wrong with saying 'well your question is wrong'. That actually shows strength and knowledge."
Debates have been a hallmark of Canadian elections since 1968, but what effect do they actually have on voters? Strategists will tell you they’re critical to elections and a lot of planning goes into them. Researchers, on the other hand, say there’s evidence they can change votes, though often they don't. 8:39

Tune in Monday night on CBC News Network to watch the full debate at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

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