Trudeau snubs Munk, Maclean's/Citytv debates but will attend commission debates

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is committing to taking part in two federal election debates and is willing to do a third — but will be a no-show for both the Munk and Maclean's/Citytv debates, despite efforts to convince the Liberal leader to take part.

Liberal leader willing to do TVA debate if parties can agree on date

[From Left] Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, then-New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair and then-prime minister Stephen Harper take part in the Maclean's/Citytv debate during the 2015 federal election. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is committing to taking part in two federal election debates and is willing to do a third — but will be a no-show for both the Munk and Maclean's/Citytv debates, despite efforts to convince the Liberal leader to take part.

The two debates that Trudeau has committed to attending are being organized by the Leaders' Debates Commission, which was established after the last election and is led by former governor general David Johnston.

"The commission was established after the last election where the governing party tried to game the system and make sure the fewest number of Canadians engaged in the debates. We think that's wrong," Daniel Lauzon, the Liberals' director of communications and policy for the campaign, said in a statement.

"The commission debates will be widely distributed on television, radio, digital and social streaming platforms and reach the largest possible audience."

The Liberals also have given a provisional yes to Quebec-based TVA to participate in a third debate if all parties can agree on a date. TVA is the only major Canadian network not included in the commission and commands the largest television audiences in Quebec.

The broadcasters taking part in the commission are:

  • CBC News.
  • Radio-Canada.
  • Global News.
  • CTV News.
  • The Toronto Star and the Torstar chain.
  • HuffPost Canada.
  • HuffPost Quebec.
  • La Presse.
  • Le Devoir.
  • L'Actualité.

The Quebec audience is one that Trudeau is keen to reach in this campaign. The Liberals are anticipating seat losses in Atlantic Canada and the Prairies. They hope to hang on to government by offsetting those losses with gains in Quebec and possibly Ontario.

While the Liberals are willing to do the TVA debate this time, a spokesperson says the party is trying to convince the broadcaster to participate in future commission debates.

'A formidable debater'

The decision means that Trudeau will not be taking part in the Munk Debates on foreign policy, set for Oct. 1 — a debate Trudeau did take part in during the 2015 election.

It also means the prime minister will not participate in the Maclean's/Citytv leaders debate scheduled to take place September 12. 

So far, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May have all agreed to participate in the Munk and Maclean's/Citytv debates.

A spokesperson for the Conservative Party said the debates are about Canadians, not the leaders, and Scheer would be attending all election debates.

"We know Justin Trudeau is a formidable debater, as he proved in the last election. The only reason he would have for not wanting to attend all the debates is that he's afraid to defend his record," Brock Harrison said in a statement. 

During the 2015 election, then-prime minister Stephen Harper refused to participate in the English language debate being run by the consortium of broadcasters, the predecessor to the commission.

Harper instead agreed to participate in the Maclean's/Citytv debate and the Globe and Mail debate, on top of the French language consortium debate, TVAs' debate and the bilingual Munk debate on foreign policy. 

The opposition at the time criticized Harper's decision to snub the English language consortium debate in favour of smaller debates, some of which were only streamed online, as a move that prevented the largest possible audience from viewing the exchanges between party leaders.

Trudeau was keen to participate in multiple debates in 2015 — an election that saw the longest campaign period in modern Canadian history. But Trudeau's critics now argue that he is cherry-picking debates for political reasons.

In the last election he was the third-party leader and had much to gain from engaging with other leaders at every opportunity. But as prime minister, Trudeau exposes himself to greater political risk by agreeing to additional debates. 

"We're disappointed. Canadians deserve better. This is not the new politics Mr. Trudeau promised,"  NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement.

"It's hard to know which questions Mr. Trudeau didn't want to be accountable to. Why did you buy a pipeline? Why did you give the Weston family $12 million for fridges, but yet can't find the money for a Pharmacare program? Why do you care more about helping your wealthy friends than hard-working families?"

"I'm not surprised he doesn't want to answer these questions because he wouldn't answer me when I asked him in Parliament. But he should answer to Canadians."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she has mixed feelings.

May said she supports the purpose of the debate commission since she had been left off the stage in past years. 

"Debates are a constant source of backroom dealing and anti-democratic collusion," she told CBC. 

However, May said, she would rather see more debates than fewer, and called Trudeau's decision to skip out on the Munk and Maclean's/Citytv debates a "shame."

The Liberals say Trudeau's refusal to do more than three debates is about logistics. The election hasn't officially started but it will be a more conventional five or six-week campaign, not the marathon writ period of 2015. Each debate takes several days of preparation and limits the campaign's ability to travel away from the debate sites — which are exclusively in Ontario and Quebec.

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