Women's issues at centre of 4 one-on-one interviews with federal party leaders

What was supposed to be a federal leader's debate on women's issues will now see four leaders give separate one-on-one interviews, the Up For Debate campaign announced on Tuesday after a game of chicken left them with a debate that didn't include Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair.

Organizers welcome commitment to one-on-one interviews even if a debate was their top choice

Four of the five main federal leaders have agreed to one-on-one interviews with questions focused on women's issues, from left: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has not yet agreed to take part. (Canadian Press photos)

What was supposed to be a debate on women's issues will now see four of the five main federal party leaders sit down for separate one-on-one interviews with the Up For Debate campaign, a group representing an alliance of Canadian women's organizations.

"It may not be the debate we first imagined — but an alternative [that] can get all party leaders speaking on the record to issues that matter to women," said Ann Decter, an Up For Debate campaign spokesperson, in a news release on Tuesday.

"And it will still be the first time that happens in 30 years," Decter said of the group's "Plan B."

The announcement came after the NDP confirmed Tom Mulcair's participation in the one-on-one format, a day after the leader was criticized on social media for not taking part in the debate focused on women's issues after initially committing to it.

The NDP leader had said after the federal election was called that a debate without Stephen Harper "wouldn't make much sense."

Harper has agreed to take part in a total of five debates including the proposals made by The Globe and Mail and the Munk Debates, as well as a French-language debate staged by TVA and another by Radio-Canada. That's in addition to the debate he attended on Aug. 6.

Along with Mulcair, the Up For Debate campaign said it had secured the participation of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Green Leader Elizabeth May and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, and that it was hoping Harper would agree to this new format.

Asked whether Harper would consider the proposal, Conservative campaign spokesperson Kory Teneycke told CBC News in an email "we have no comment."

The interviews with the four federal leaders, which the group is now labelling as "exclusive," will be released on Sept. 21 during a live event in Toronto along with comment and analysis.

'Best we can do, under the circumstances'

On Tuesday, Mulcair was in Kitchener for a campaign stop where he was asked whether a one-on-one interview was an adequate substitute for a leaders debate.

"I would have preferred the full debate format with the prime minister present," Mulcair said. "Barring that, this is the best we can do under the circumstances."

Mulcair said the one-on-one format would allow him to present his party's platform, including a proposal for universal child care at $15 a day and a commitment to call a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women within 100 days of forming government.

"We will get to go through all of our policies and have a complete discussion," Mulcair said.

Mulcair "providing cover" for Harper

Elizabeth May urged Mulcair to reconsider his decision not to take part in the women's debate.

"What he is doing is providing cover to Stephen Harper," the Green Party leader said during a campaign stop in Burnaby, B.C.

"When Stephen Harper says he won't show up that's shameful and shocking. And the best way to ensure that the leader of the Conservative Party shows up is that the rest of us proceed as we had originally planned."

"Call his bluff, he'll show up," May said.

Asked about the plea from May, Mulcair stuck to his talking points. 

"As you know, the person I'm trying to defeat and replace is Stephen Harper. I've said clearly I'll take part in the debates if he is there."

Mulcair said he was "very glad" to be taking part in this one-on-one interview, and noted the "format will be half English, half French. It'll be available to all Canadians."

"Women's issues are everyone's issues"

Trudeau also pounced on Mulcair's decision to pass on the women's debate.

'Tom Mulcair should be ashamed of himself for breaking his word to attend what would have been the first leaders' debate on women's issues in more than 30 years," the Liberal leader said during an evening rally in Sarnia, Ont.

"We all know that Mr. Harper doesn't get it, but now we know that Mr. Mulcair doesn't get it. Women's issues are everyone's issues," Trudeau said.

A spokesperson for the NDP told CBC News it was the party that suggested an alternate format to the debate.

"We had asked the organization for such an opportunity a few weeks ago. We are pleased that this event is happening," Brad Lavigne said in an email to CBC News on Tuesday.

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