Report finds 2021 federal election debates were clumsy and didn't help voters understand policy

The next federal election debates should have a simpler format and better moderation to focus more on what leaders say than what they are asked, says the commission that oversees the events.
Federal party leaders faced off during the English language leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The next federal election debates should have a simpler format and better moderation to put the focus on what leaders say, rather than what they're asked, says the commission that oversees the events.

"There is widespread agreement that the 2021 debates did not deliver as well as they should have on informing voters about parties' policies," says the final report of the Leaders' Debates Commission on the 2021 nationally televised events.

Many people look to leaders' debates during an election for the elusive "knockout punch" — the moment when a politician gets such a good hit on an opponent that their campaign efforts nosedive.

But in 2021, it was a throw from a moderator that left the biggest impression. Shachi Kurl, the president of the Angus Reid Institute, asked Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet why he defended "discriminatory" provincial laws about religious symbols and the French language, which she said marginalized minorities and anglophones.

Blanchet was incensed and accused Kurl of calling his province racist. Premier Francois Legault demanded an apology and most other leaders spent the following days responding to questions about whether they agreed with Kurl's statement about the Quebec laws.

But it wasn't just Kurl's performance that left some viewers unhappy.

Too many questions, not enough debate

"A consensus emerged among the stakeholders consulted that the format was too rigid, too complex, too confusing, involved too many journalists on stage and did not sufficiently generate debate between the leaders," the report said.

There were also too many questions.

During the 2008 election debate, eight questions were posed to the leaders in the two-hour time frame. In 2021, the number was 45.

Shachi Kurl, the president of the Angus Reid Institute, was criticized by Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Premier Francois Legault for describing Quebec's ban on religious symbols as discriminatory. (Angus Reid Institute)

The commission is recommending that it get the final say on the format and the moderator, following consultations with experts.

The 2021 election was the second one during which the leaders' debates — one in French and one in English — were hosted by the commission. Viewership for both debates plummeted, but more so on the English side.

The French debate drew a total audience of 4.3 million in 2021, compared with five million in 2019. The English debate audience came in at 10.3 million, down from 14.2 million two years earlier.

The commission, headed by former governor general David Johnston, said low viewership could be blamed in part on the election itself, which came at the tail end of summer during a pandemic, with lower voter engagement overall and lower turnout in the end.

Debate organizers say further improvements are needed

But the report said it was clear that the debates failed to substantially add to what people knew about party policies.

Before 2019, election debates were put on by a consortium of television networks working with the parties to determine timing and format. In 2015, then-prime minister Stephen Harper refused to participate in consortium debates in English, though he ultimately did one in French.

Multiple English debates were held that year, hosted by different media organizations and think tanks, with comparatively low viewership. The English viewership ranged from 1.5 million to 4.3 million for three debates, and the two French debates had audiences of 985,000 and 1.2 million.

The debates commission was formed in 2018 to create a better experience. The report on the 2021 events says there is still work to do to make the debates better, but adds it still believes having a permanent, publicly funded debates commission is the right decision.


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