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Democracy matters: Making debates count for citizens
A report on the Leaders' Debates Commission 2021 federal election experience

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Message from the Debates Commissioner: On democracy, trust and leaders' debates

Canada has a strong history of democratic government and respect for civil liberties. But we live at a time when democracy is in decline around the world. Based on a five-part rating system, the 2021 Economist Democracy Index concludes that only 6.4% of the world's population lives in a full democracy, with only 21 countries, including Canada, ranking as full democracies. The 2021 Freedom House Freedom in the World Index reports a 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom and that "democracy is under siege."Footnote 1

Canada's democracy has done relatively well so far, but one of our greatest dangers is complacency, which is why informed elections that engage our citizens are more important than ever.  It is here that  leaders' debates can make an important contribution: we know that seeing leaders together, live on stage, answering tough questions and challenging each other's ideas and opinions, helps Canadians learn about political leadership and issues that matter. And at their best, debates can reflect our core values such as fairness, civility and pluralism.

Debates are more than campaign events or journalistic exercises. The 2021 Canadian Election Study (CES) showed that the 2021 leaders' debates increased trust in government, the media and political parties.Footnote 2 In an age of disinformation, fragmentation of audiences and polarisation of public opinion, leaders' debates produce an authentic record of party positions that citizens can trust and come back to repeatedly.  Done well, leaders' debates are a public trust, that in turn, can help build trust.

Making debates count

The Leaders' Debates Commission (LDC) has now gained the lessons of two election cycles. From high levels of debate viewership and public discourse, we have learned that debates can potentially serve as a focal point for an election campaign. We have made some good progress on making the debates accessible, recognizing that reaching out to remote and marginalized communities is vitally important. We are also learning, through trial and error, about what can make for compelling, predictable and informative future debates. Debates are iterative exercises that require constant evaluation and improvement. Our report makes a number of practical suggestions on how to strengthen debates. We hope it can provide a useful guide for future debate authorities. With constant learning and subject to regular review, we believe leaders' debates can be a model for effective debates at all levels across the country and help set national standards of civil discourse.

The LDC team is particularly grateful to the many individuals and institutions who have helped us so far. They have shared invaluable experience gained over many years in Canada and abroad. Their research underpins many of our findings. Their thoughtful advice has helped to shape many of our recommendations. Together, they are helping to make our future debates a better and more permanent part of our democratic system. In so doing, they are helping to gather a diversity of voices around debates and elections, and building an ongoing community rooted in Canada but global in scope.

It has been an honour to work with a dedicated team to help nurture a renewed interest in our democratic institutions through leaders' debates. This team, largely part-time, led by Michel Cormier and composed of Bradley Eddison, Jess Milton, Chantal Ouimet, Kelly-Ann Benoit, and Stephen Wallace (who served pro bono), is as professional and committed to the public good as any I have ever encountered.  

We have a strong foundation in Canada to reinforce our democracy. But the endurance of democracy demands both constant vigilance and collective vigour. In the same way, building trust in our institutions requires constant attention and commitment. We are conscious of the public trust we hold to ensure effective and informative debates that establish worthy standards of civility, truth and transparency.  The report that follows set outs what we have accomplished, what we have learned, and what can be built for the future.

David Johnston
Debates Commissioner

Section 1 - Implementing the Commission's mandate

The September 2021 federal election was the second political cycle in which the LDC organized debates. As in 2019, the Commission was mandated to organize two debates, one in each official language.

This report analyzes to what extent the LDC delivered on its mandate in 2021.

After the most recent experience, which drew significant stakeholder criticism, the Commission must carefully assess what it has accomplished and whether its continued existence is necessary. In other words, does the LDC add anything worthwhile to the debate ecosystem that would not be generated otherwise? If so, should the mandate, role and structure of the Commission evolve to ensure improvements in the organization and delivery of the debates?

We believe that a candid self-assessment of the 2021 experience is key to identifying what works and what needs to be improved.

The context

Before analyzing the 2021 experience, it is useful to recall the context that led to the creation of the LDC in 2018. The decision to establish the Commission stemmed from the 2015 federal election campaign experience, which failed to produce a widely viewed and distributed English-language debate.

By mandating an independent Commission to organize two leaders' debates, one in each official language, the Government indicated it wanted to reduce the possibility that negotiations between the political parties and television networks would fail to produce debates, or would produce debates with limited public reach. It also wanted to bring more predictability, reliability and stability to the debates.Footnote 3

Article 4 of its 2018 Order in Council (OIC) defines the Commission's role in the following terms: "In fulfilling its mandate, the Leaders' Debates Commission is to be guided by the pursuit of the public interest and by the principles of independence, impartiality, credibility, democratic citizenship, civic education, inclusion and cost-effectiveness."Footnote 4

The 2019 experience

The Commission's work is iterative. To find the best way forward, it is necessary to consider the road travelled. The 2019 debates, post-debate consultations and our 2019 report all informed the approach we took in organizing the 2021 debates.Footnote 5

The 2019 experience provided stability to the debates. The participation rules were made public and political parties committed well in advance to take part. The debates also increased their reach and viewership. Debates were made available in a range of languages other than French and English, including Indigenous languages, American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ). Public opinion surveys conducted for the Commission revealed that a majority of voters believed the debates helped them make their choice in the election.Footnote 6 As we concluded in our 2019 report: democracy matters, debates count.

There were, however, areas for improvement. Our 2019 report contained 11 recommendations. The principal recommendation, based on a wide consensus stemming from consultations, was that the LDC be made permanent, provided that measures are maintained to ensure its independence, impartiality and transparency. The Commission also recommended that it ultimately be established through legislation, that its Commissioner be appointed in consultation with political parties represented in the House of Commons, and that the Commission maintain some operational capacity between elections. The LDC would use that time to maintain relationships with stakeholders and foster discussion about best debate practices in format and production.

The Commission also recommended that the Commissioner, not the Government, set the participation criteria and that these should be as clear and objective as possible and be made public before the election campaign.

Finally, the Commission recommended that it should reserve the right of final approval of the format and the production of the debates, while respecting journalistic independence.

Renewed 2021 mandate

The Commission's term ended on March 31, 2020, shortly after it submitted its report and financial statements. In November 2020, the Government reappointed a Debates Commissioner and issued an OIC to provide the LDC with an amended mandate to organize two debates, one in each official language, for the minority government political cycle.Footnote 7

This amended OIC included three additional elements of the LDC's mandate:

  • Set participation criteria and make them public;
  • Ensure the debates are available in languages other than French and English, paying special attention to Canada's Indigenous languages; and
  • Provide final approval of the format and production of the leaders' debates, while respecting journalistic independence.

The Government thus gave the LDC the authority to deal with two major issues stemming from the 2019 debates: setting clearer, more objective participation criteria and final approval of the debates' format.

The next section looks in more detail at the Commission's 2021 mandate and examines to what extent it delivered on it. This assessment will form the basis for our 2021 recommendations.

Section 2 – Principal findings

As noted above, the LDC's OIC provided several objectives.

To review whether the Commission achieved these objectives, we examined the 2021 leaders' debates and consulted widely with stakeholders both here in Canada and internationally. We held four debate symposia with experts in debate production, organization and polling. We spoke with debate moderators, producers and television executives around the world. We interviewed more than 40 stakeholders from the Canadian experience on everything from how to choose a moderator, to how to improve on interpretation. We asked for feedback from the public and received more than 1,100 submissions from Canadians. We worked with the Canadian Election Study (CES) at the University of Toronto to survey 2,000 Canadians on what makes successful debates.

This section seeks to provide a factual analysis of our 2021 experience.

2.1 Were the debates accessible and widely distributed?

The English-language and French-language debates were available live on 36 television networks, four radio networks, and more than 115 digital streams. Canadians were also able to watch the debates online after they aired in the language of their choice.Footnote 8 The debates were provided in 16 languages, including six Indigenous languages and ASL and LSQ. They were also available in closed captioning and described video. Fewer than 5% of non-viewers indicated that their main reason for not watching the debates was a lack of accessibility.Footnote 9

More than 10 million Canadians tuned in to the English-language debate and over four million watched the French-language debate. These numbers are large in comparison to both international debate ratings and Canadian television programming. For instance, in 2021, 8.8 million Canadians watched the Super Bowl.

Debate viewership 2011-2021
  2011 2015 2019 2021
English Consortium: 10,650,000 MacLean's: 4,300,000
Globe and Mail: 2,270,000
Munk: 1,546,000
Commission: 14,219,000
MacLean's: ratings N/A
Commission: 10,273,926
French Consortium: 1,320,000 Consortium: 1,214,000
TVA: 985,000
Commission: 5,023,435
TVA: 1,318,000
Commission: 4,282,628
TVA: 2,560,000
TOTAL 11,970,000 10,315,000 20,560,435 17,116,554

2.2 Were debate invitations issued on the basis of clear, open, and transparent participation criteria?

In 2021, the LDC set participation criteria and made them public in advance of the election. The Commission also made public its rationale for how it would apply the criteria, as well as its decision on which party leaders met the criteria to be invited. Invitations to party leaders were subsequently made public, as were the leaders' responses.

Stakeholders generally thought the Commission developed sound criteria and applied them clearly and objectively. There was some feedback that the application date of these criteria should aim to be as close to the debates as possible and should use data that was as recent as possible. That said, the debates producer pointed out that a "late hour" determination of the number of leaders on stage could jeopardize their ability to produce a debate of high quality, as required by the OIC. It could also impact the ability of political parties to prepare for the debates.

2.3 Were the debates effective, informative, and compelling?

The answer to this question is complex and in many ways subjective. People have varying conceptions of what makes debates effective, informative and compelling. To answer the question in the most comprehensive way possible, we rely on a mix of objective data, consultations we conducted with various stakeholders, and public reaction, as well as public opinion research we commissioned after the debates.

The first objective measurement of a debate's effectiveness is viewership. As we have seen, the LDC's 2021 debates attracted more than 14 million viewers, which is five million fewer than in 2019 but more than in 2015 and 2011. The Debates Broadcast Group (DBG) noted that the decrease in viewership reflects a decrease in television viewership across the board. Viewership may also have been impacted by lack of interest in the election, keeping in mind that voter turnout was also down in 2021 compared to 2019. Other possible factors: the election was held in the summer and therefore the debates were held early in September – a busy time for many Canadians; and COVID-19 affected the ability for broadcasters to be on site before the events, and therefore there was not as much media coverage leading up to the debates as in 2019.

The success of debates, however, is defined by more than the number of people who watch them. Debates are meant to create an environment where voters can better learn about party policies and evaluate the qualities of leaders: both their capacity to explain policies and their ability to perform under pressure.

There is widespread agreement that the 2021 debates did not deliver as well as they should have on informing voters about parties' policies. The two major weaknesses identified, especially with respect to the English-language debate, were format and moderation. Stakeholders we consulted and analysis that was publishedFootnote 10 criticized the format as being cluttered, restrictive and not allowing enough time for leaders to express themselves or to engage in meaningful exchanges. The consensus was that there were too many journalists on stage. Moreover, the line of questioning from the moderator and journalists limited the ability of leaders to expound on their positions.

Many Canadians were somewhat less critical. Polling conducted for the LDC by the CES show that 63%Footnote 11 found the debates informative. The moderation was also more favourably evaluated, with 77%Footnote 12 of viewers indicating that the moderators asked good questions and 79% indicating that they treated each leader fairly.Footnote 13 Still, 56% said there was not enough time provided to leaders to debate each other.Footnote 14 As one participant in a CES focus group remarked, "It seemed like they're just rushing through everything and no one is really getting answers."Footnote 15

Compared to non-debate watchers, those who watched the debates experienced increased:

  • Trust in the federal government;
  • Trust in political parties;
  • Ability to rate party leaders;
  • Updating in leader ratings;
  • Election interest; and
  • Confidence in voting decision.

However, the same survey showed that Canadians did not sufficiently learn about the parties' platforms during the debates. This is significantly different from the 2019 debates, when a similar survey conducted by the CES showed that viewers' knowledge of party platforms had been enhanced by watching the debates.Footnote 16

2.4 Were the debates organized to serve the public interest?

In determining whether the debates were organized in the public interest, it is important to distinguish between the organizational components of the debates and their substantive elements.

From a strictly organizational standpoint, the Commission believes it delivered on its mandate. The debates were organized according to the rules of public procurement, through an independent, public request for proposals process that selected the producer along clear criteria. The delivery of the debates was also well within the contracted budget.

On the substantive front, however, the debates were less successful in serving the public interest. This is defined in our OIC as an "essential contribution to the health of Canadian democracy."

We interpret the public interest in debates as responding to and serving the needs of the viewing public and, by extension, the voters. Our public opinion surveys reveal that what viewers want the most from debates is information on the platform positions of leaders and their parties that helps them make an informed choice at the ballot box.Footnote 17 Consequently, all the components of the debates should be fashioned to serve that need. They must enhance the delivery of relevant information to voters. This influences the type of questions that are asked of the leaders and the manner in which they are asked.

Framing the debates around the public interest also fosters trust. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, Canada is not a trusting society. We maintain overall a neutral attitude towards our institutions, with disinformation no doubt a contributing factor.Footnote 18 By providing a safe space where voters can evaluate party leaders in a live, unmediated format, debates can help build trust in institutions and foster citizen engagement. This is especially important for communities that feel disenfranchised or forgotten by the political process. Serving the public interest includes reaching people where they live, in languages other than French and English, and providing information that is relevant to their realities.

Section 3 – Beyond 2021

This section provides recommendations that seek to improve the mandate, role and structure of a future Commission or alternative independent body. It looks at what role this body can play, if any, in improving the production of the debates; and how it can, in collaboration with its partners, better serve the public interest.

While this independent body could take the form of the current Commission, there could be a number of institutional models worth considering over the longer term. We will look at these different models later. For the purpose of readability, we use the term Commission in the sections below.

While it has succeeded in making the debates more stable, accessible and transparent, the Commission has not fully achieved the goal of what we could call overall debate integrity. Debate integrity refers to a number of dimensions: participation criteria, reach, promotion, viewership, format, moderation, choice of themes and questions, mandate accountability, audience satisfaction and serving the public interest. For the debates to have integrity, each of these dimensions must be satisfied. Integrity implies the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that overarching responsibility for the debates' success rests with a future Commission or independent body.

First, it is important to explore what needs to be accomplished and changed to improve each of the components of the debates.

3.1 Improving the leaders' debates in the next general election

There are three fundamental components related to the production of debates. For clarity, we are categorizing them below:

Format

The format pertains to the structural elements of the debate:

  • Form (town hall, open debate, etc.)
  • Number of segments and determination of segments (opening and closing statements, participation from audience, panels or guests, video packages, etc.)
  • Timing: length of the debate, length of each segment, how long each leader has to answer a question, how much time should be devoted to each theme, length of open debate sections
  • Number of questions posed to each leader but not the themes or topics of the questions

Moderation

The role of "moderator" refers to any person on the debate stage who:

  • Steers or chairs the debate; OR
  • Keeps track of timing; OR
  • Engages with leaders by posing questions and follows up with questions to the leaders.

For greater clarity, a journalist who is on stage engaging with leaders, asking them questions and following up with questions to the leaders is a de facto moderator.

A member of the public who is seated in the audience or is live via video feed is not considered a moderator as they are not on stage with the leaders and are not engaging with them through follow-up questions and rebuttals.

Editorial

The editorial components of the debate include:

  • Themes and questions to the leaders, including:
    • Determining the themes and questions
    • The order of the themes and questions
    • The specific wording of each question

Essentially, editorial is what the leaders are talking about and which themes and questions they are being asked. Moderation is who asks these questions. Format is how (the mechanics of how the debate will unfold) and where (the logistics of the timing and run of show).

3.1.1 Format

There was widespread criticism of both 2021 debate formats by the media, public and various stakeholders.

Media coverage of the French-language debate focused on whether the debate had given rise to meaningful exchanges.Footnote 19 Criticism centered on the following:

  • Busy format
  • Too many questions
  • Overproduced
  • Too many journalists on stage
  • Little opportunity for leaders to debate

The English-language debate received more negative media coverage and was marked by controversy over both format and moderation.

Media critics said the format was "restrictive"Footnote 20 and "tightly structured,"Footnote 21 giving leaders "too little time to explain their policies."Footnote 22 Commentators contended that the debate put too much emphasis on timing, had too many journalists on stage and provided no real opportunity for debate. The Globe and Mail likened it to a "press conference."Footnote 23

Public inputs received by the Commission underscored the same issues. Citizens wrote in with the following comments:

  • "A debate is not a Q&A"
  • "The format did not allow sufficient time for any leader to explain [their] position"
  • "It shouldn't be a 'beat the clock' format"
  • "This was purely crafted for TV ratings" and "'gotcha' soundbites that can be recycled on the nightly news"
  • "The debate is not for showcasing journalistic talent" and "self-promotion"

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.

Stakeholders said the combination of what were effectively five or six formats into one was difficult to follow. They also stated that the spotlight was often on journalistic talent instead of on the leaders.

Post-debate analysis showed there has been an increase in the number of questions posed in two-hour debates over time. In 2008, there were eight questions put to the leaders; in 2021 there were 45.Footnote 24 This data underscored the view that the debate had provided too much time for the moderator and journalists, and too little time for leaders. Others commented that the inclusion of questions from the members of the public contributed to the busyness of the format and provided limited value to the debate itself.

Both here and abroad stakeholders suggested the debate format should be simplified.

As noted above, a majority of citizens surveyed by the Commission asserted that their most important debate objective was to learn about the leaders' platforms.Footnote 25 As one participant in a CES focus group observed, the debates' objective "is to express and clearly show what [parties'] projects are, and what they are going to do for us."Footnote 26 The least important factor for Canadians was the need for a debate to "be exciting."Footnote 27

The Commission also received feedback about the issue of equal time for each leader and its potential trade-offs. A consensus emerged that there should be less emphasis on absolute equal time, but rather focus on being as fair as possible over the entirety of the debate. In other words, equal time should be incorporated as a principle rather than a mechanical approach.

Some stakeholders proposed eliminating the draw, the randomized determination of podium positions and order of questioning, and instead argued that this should be an editorial decision that is made to best serve the public interest.

The Commission concludes that the following format elements should be considered:

  • Opening and closing statements;
  • Same questions to all candidates in order to encourage debate between leaders;
  • Time for follow-up questions to ensure leaders respond to the question asked;
  • Open debate with all the leaders;
  • Fairness rather than rigid adherence to equal time for all leaders; and
  • Appropriate number and length of themes and questions to allow for in-depth discussion.

The question now is what role, if any, a future Commission should play in format issues.

In 2019, the Commission asked for an increased role for itself. In proposing to have the right of final approval on the format, the Commission's intention was not to impose a format on the networks, but to work with the debates producer to develop a format that would best represent the public interest. This was not possible in 2021 as the Commission received its new mandate in December 2020 and had to be ready for an election call as early as the spring of 2021. This short runway made it difficult for the Commission to work with stakeholders to develop and test potential formats or to get stakeholders onboard with the new process.

Our OIC says the Commission should have final approval of format while "respecting journalistic independence." In the context of the debates, we believe journalistic independence is more specifically defined as editorial independence, i.e. the editorial components of the debate as described above in section 3.1.

We believe it is an important responsibility for a future Commission to protect the editorial independence of the debates producer. But we do not believe format, the structural elements of the debate as outlined above in section 3.1., to be an editorial decision. We think a future Commission with no competing interests is best suited to develop a format that best serves the public interest. Having these discussions outside the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the months preceding an election call would also help in building efficiency and fostering trust in this democratic exercise.

NEW RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #1: The Commission should have final approval over the format and should work with stakeholders between elections to develop a simplified format that best serves Canadians.

3.1.2 Moderation

There was strong consensus among the stakeholders consulted in 2021 that an effective moderator is central to the integrity of the debates and trust in democratic institutions.

Consultations highlighted that much of the success of debates rests with the moderator. This individual sets the tone of the debate and acts as the guardian of the public trust. It is important that they be neutral and keep the focus on the leaders. The moderator is on stage as a facilitator and is there to serve the voting audience.

Chris Waddell, former Director of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication and former CBC Television News parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer of news specials in Ottawa, wrote in his submission to the Commission that "invisibility should be the moderator's objective while holding a whistle that will be used infrequently but that participants know requires them to pay attention and follow orders when they hear it." Comparing the role of moderator to a "referee in hockey," he stated, "the best are ones the audience doesn't notice." Public inputs received by the Commission echoed this sentiment. "I have no interest in the opinion of the moderator," wrote one citizen. "We need to know the point of view of the party leaders," offered another.

Media commentators, public input and stakeholders we consulted proposed that the Commission should consider having a single moderator for future debates. Citizens put forward the same view, with the majority of Canadians surveyed by the Commission preferring a single moderator over multiple moderators.Footnote 28

International stakeholders and debate organizers noted the preference for a single moderator is a pattern that emerges over time. One moderator can use time most efficiently and more easily follow up with questions. A veteran debate organizer remarked that a moderator should have a reputation to lose, not a reputation to build. There was also consensus from stakeholders that fact-checking should largely be left to participating leaders.

When choosing a moderator for future debates, the Commission proposes it be someone who:

  • Is experienced, familiar to the leaders, understands the major issues of the campaign, and has hours of live television experience and debate experience;
  • Possesses the respect and trust of the leaders, as well as gravitas and intellectual depth;
  • Is able to facilitate debate, elicit illuminating exchanges between the leaders, clarify the positions by asking follow up questions, and hold the leaders to account;
  • Poses open-ended questions that prompt debate and promote discussion;
  • Understands that the debate focus and attention is on the leaders;
  • Serves the public interest and voting audience;
  • Is able to control the discussion and move it along, interrupt when appropriate and avoid cross-talk; and
  • Is non-partisan.

The role of the moderator is fundamental if debates are to serve the public interest above all else. The selection of debate moderators must therefore be done by an impartial and independent body, with no other competing interests.

By playing a central role, a future Commission should facilitate the choice of moderators by mitigating competing interests of media partners involved in the production of the debates. It has become almost customary for media organizations involved in the debates to expect to have one of their journalists on stage. A future Commission should propose the selection process of the moderators be made in a collaborative spirit with the producers of the debates. Once selected, a future Commission should ensure the moderators and the debates producer have full editorial independence over the conduct of the debates.

To ensure the independence of debates, political parties should not be consulted on the moderation and moderation choices. A future Commission should exercise due diligence and procedural transparency when undertaking the selection of the debate moderators.

NEW RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #2: The Commission should select the debate moderator(s) based on expert consultations.

3.1.3 Editorial

The Commission believes editorial independence needs to be protected.

To respect the editorial independence of the debates, neither the Commission nor political parties should be involved in choosing the themes or the questions.

All editorial decisions – including debate themes, debate questions, specific wording of each question as well as the order of questions and themes – should continue to be made by the debates producer and debate moderators.

3.1.4 Number of debates

In 2019 and 2021, the Commission's mandate was to organize two debates, one in each official language. These debates, according to the Commission's OIC, were expected to "benefit from the participation of the leaders who have the greatest likelihood of becoming Prime Minister or whose political parties have the greatest likelihood of winning seats in Parliament."Footnote 29

Following the 2021 federal election, there were calls for more debates from the public, civil society and media commentators, especially in English Canada.

There was widespread consensus in post-debate consultations that the Commission should consider organizing more than one debate in each official language to address the imbalance experienced in 2021.

The Commission also heard that it should consider organizing additional debates to better serve the public interest. Stakeholders drew comparisons with international models, notably with the U.S., France, Germany and the UK, which all organized more than two debates in their last election cycles, scheduling debates with both the frontrunners and main party candidates. For example, Germany held four debates in the country's recent federal elections, three with the candidates running for chancellor and one with the seven parties in the Bundestag. The UK organized at least five debates in its last general election in 2019, holding debates with both the main party leaders or leading figures of those parties and with the frontrunners.

Results of the CES study show that citizens favour two debates in each language in a five-week campaign, preferring to hear from a broader range of leaders.Footnote 30 While this is the popular view, the Commission also heard concern that this would require the agreement of the political parties and television networks. Invited leaders may not be willing or available, and networks may not commit to broadcasting multiple debates due to revenue losses from cancelling regular network shows. Stakeholders also evoked the short Canadian election campaigns as another possible impediment to holding more debates.

Ratings in 2021 show that more debates may not splinter the viewing audience. The TVA debate attracted a large audience without eroding the number of people who tuned in to LDC's French-language debate. International debate ratings also remained high despite multiple debates.

Some stakeholders suggested Canada should consider looking at two different types of debates similar to European countries. They offered that having the opportunity to hear from leaders most likely to form government and become prime minister may have a lot of appeal for Canadians. International experience suggests that such a debate model works well elsewhere. In the Canadian context, there may be some challenges associated with this view, namely the willingness or availability of invited leaders to participate, the possibility of fracturing the viewing audience, and practical difficulties associated with shorter electoral campaigns. Canada's electoral history may provide some basis for determining who might be part of a frontrunners' debate (i.e. parties that are most likely to form government). This approach would require not only a cultural shift for the country and buy-in from the political parties and broadcasters, but also the setting on a clear and objective basis of two different sets of participation criteria.

The Commission also heard feedback that it should consider the possibility of organizing debates on specific topics. While there may be future demand for additional debates on specific issues (in our view a very desirable outcome), these could be hosted by other organizations and may involve senior party representatives. Such endeavours should be encouraged through the lending of expertise and by providing advice in terms of toolkits or manuals, thereby stimulating the evolution of debates in Canada.

Fundamentally, the spectrum of inputs received during this past election cycle and throughout the post-debate consultations showed that a majority of Canadians want more debates. As a result, the Commission believes that it should consider organizing more than two debates, one in each official language, provided additional funding is made available. These could be more debates with qualified party leaders or debates with the frontrunners. If a future Commission is responsible for organizing and encouraging more debates beyond the two currently in its mandate, it should have the authority to do so to ensure that Canadians are best served.

NEW RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #3: The Commission should organize two publicly funded leaders' debates (one in each official language) and have the ability, funding and authority to consider organizing additional leaders' debates where feasible. It should also have the ability to provide advice and expertise to other debate organizers.

3.1.5 Participation criteria

In 2021, the Commission was tasked with selecting the party leaders who would be invited to participate in its debates.

The Commission undertook this task by consulting with registered political parties, stakeholders, and the public. It also considered the historical application of debate participation criteria in past Canadian elections; the 2019 participation criteria; existing public policy documents on debate participation criteria; and submissions from stakeholders, including the leaders of all registered political parties, the media and the public.

As a result of this process, the Commission developed principles to guide the creation of its participation criteria. The Commission concluded that the criteria should, to the greatest extent possible:

  • Be simple;
  • Be clear;
  • Be objective; and
  • Allow for the participation of leaders of political parties that have the greatest likelihood of winning seats in the House of Commons.

On June 22, 2021, the Commission announced its decision and provided supporting rationale.Footnote 31

In order to be invited by the Commission to participate in the 2021 leaders' debates, a leader of a political party was required to meet one of the following criteria:

(i): on the date the general election is called, the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party; or

(ii): the party's candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least 4% of the number of valid votes cast; or

(iii): five days after the date the general election is called, the party receives a level of national support of at least 4%, determined by voting intention, and as measured by leading national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recently publicly reported results.

On August 16, 2021, the Commission also made public how it would apply criterion (iii), along with a detailed rationale.Footnote 32 The objective of the release of this information, ahead of the election call, was to increase transparency around which polls the Commission would use to measure a party's level of support and how these polls would be averaged.

On August 21, 2021, the Commission issued its decision on the application of the participation criteria and invited five party leaders to participate in its debates.Footnote 33 This decision was made following the Commission's request for and receipt of advice from a Polling Advisory Group convened by Peter Loewen, who in addition to co-leading the CES for the 2021 federal election, is a professor in the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Associate Director, Global Engagement at the Munk School, and Director of PEARL (Policy, Elections, & Representation Lab).

All five invited leaders participated in the Commission's debates.

Stakeholder reaction and post-debate consultations indicated broad satisfaction with the criteria and the process by which the Commission communicated its approach and its decisions. Writer and polls analyst Éric Grenier commented that the Commission had chosen "simple, objective criteria that could be employed in future elections."Footnote 34 The leader of the People's Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier, indicated that the Commission's criteria were "clear and objective."Footnote 35

Based on its 2021 experience, the Commission concludes that having the mandate to set participation criteria for the debates it organizes is appropriate and contributes to ensuring debates are organized in a non-partisan, predictable and transparent manner for future elections. Several components of its approach to setting and communicating these criteria in 2021 should be considered in future mandates.

In terms of setting the criteria, the Commission remains of the view that debate participation criteria should be established to measure both a political party's historical record and its level of current and future electoral support. That is because: (a) both can be used to assess whether a political party is likely to play an important part in policymaking by winning seats in the House of Commons, and (b) such an approach is consistent with the historical application of debate participation criteria in Canada. The Commission continues to believe that political parties should only be required to meet the criteria for one or the other, and not both. This enables, on the one hand, the potential participation of a newly emerging political party that may be unable to meet criteria based on a historical record, and on the other the participation of a political party with a demonstrated historical record.

The specific criteria set by the Commission for the 2021 debates were seen by a few as too high a bar for debate participation, and by a larger group as too low a bar. However, many stakeholders expressed that the selected criteria were appropriate. The Commission concludes that, to the extent future participation criteria should allow for the participation of leaders of political parties that have the greatest likelihood of winnings seats in the House of Commons, the 2021 criteria provide a useful reference and could be re-used in future elections.

In terms of applying the criteria and inviting leaders, the following components should be considered again in the future: the use of expert advice on the selection and averaging of public opinion polls, the use of as many polls as possible, and the articulation in advance of the election call of the requirements that must be met for a poll to be included in the Commission's analysis.

It is important to ensure that the date upon which parties' levels of national support are measured is as close to the date of the debates as possible. The 2021 criteria specified that this determination was to be made five days after the date the election was called; this meant the first debate took place 18 days after the Commission made its determination on parties' levels of support. In the context of an electoral campaign, this can provide, in some elections, enough time for there to be a measurable change in a party's level of support. The Commission recognizes that sufficient time between the final participation decision and the debate dates must be provided to ensure the debates producer can produce a high-quality debate, as required by the OIC, and that the political parties can properly prepare for the debates. However, a future Commission should continue discussions with both groups with the goal of narrowing this timeframe and making the final participation decision as close as possible to the debates.

Future participation criteria should aim to use the latest polls possible as a basis for determining levels of support, while still ensuring that a range of polling firms' data are used and averaged. If timing permits, this could suggest the use of only those polls released after the election is called. Additionally, in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency and predictability possible, a future Commission could explore the feasibility of not only identifying the criteria by which polls will be judged suitable for inclusion – which we did this time – but also of naming the specific polling firms that will be included.

Should a mandate be provided to consider organizing more debates, it is conceivable that a different set of guiding principles could be applied for these additional debates, such as considering: greatest likelihood of forming government instead of greatest likelihood of winning seats in Parliament. Further analysis would need to be done on the precise thresholds and methods that could be set to achieve this outcome, but a threshold of inviting leaders of those parties that have at least 20% national support in an aggregate of current public opinion polls could be a starting point to begin consultations. Any such criteria would need to be simple, clear, and objective.

REAFFIRMED RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #4: Participation criteria should be as objective as possible and made public before the election campaign begins. The criteria should be set by the Debates Commissioner.

3.1.6 Measures to encourage participation

In 2021, as in 2019, all leaders invited to participate in the debates organized by the Commission were in attendance. While it is undeniable that there are always factors beyond a debate organizer's control with regards to leader participation, the Commission remains of the view that no special measures are needed on the part of Government to encourage leader participation.

The Commission remains of the view that the best ways to encourage participation are to:

  • Deliver a large audience for the debates;
  • Engage with leaders and political parties in advance of the election;
  • Create a climate of expectancy and stability; and
  • Make debate invitations and responses from parties publicly available.

REAFFIRMED RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #5: Political parties should be encouraged rather than compelled to participate in leaders' debates.

3.1.7 Debates procurement

Background

In both 2019 and 2021, the debate producers were selected through a request for proposal (RFP). The purpose of the RFP was to contract the promotion, production and distribution of two debates for the next federal election, one in each official language. Contractors were welcome to bid on either the English-language debate, French-language debate, or both. The RFP was open to sole entities or to joint ventures, but organizations were encouraged to work together in an effort to ensure the debates reached as many Canadians as possible.

Once contracted, the Debate Broadcast Group (DBG) took full responsibility for the promotion, production, and distribution of debates while maintaining regular communications with the Commission.

The Commission approved the formats submitted and moderators proposed, but it was not involved in determining the themes or questions for the debates as these responsibilities were delegated to the DBG.

Should a future Commission undertake a greater role as it relates to the format and moderation, as suggested above, its approach to contracting should evolve slightly. Rather than defining its expectations in the RFP, a future Commission may want to evaluate bidders on experience and capability alone. A future Commission would in turn select an experienced and capable partner, with whom it would work collaboratively to develop the format while retaining final approval authority.

Future process

The DBG has indicated that the RFP process is onerous and that the bid should be simplified. They also suggested the RFP should be released as early as possible to give bidders more time to submit and to spread the workload out before the writ drop.

The group of media organizations that formed the debates producer in both 2019 and 2021 was able to reach an impressive number of Canadians. The direct link to these audiences is important and cannot be taken for granted. However, it is important to note the consortium approach is not without compromise.

Stakeholders suggested to the Commission that having only one broadcaster produce the debates may lead to better debates, as it would make workflow, choice of one single moderator and even production choices more streamlined. The Commission also learned through its consultations process that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)lays an integral role in debate production. A few stakeholders consulted went as far as to say that the public broadcaster may be the only broadcaster to have all the necessary in-house skills to bid successfully on the RFP as it is currently structured. This is worth noting as it may be relevant to future policy decisions.

In its post-debate consultations, the Commission examined and considered different types of procurement. As the last two RFPs netted similar results, an argument could be made for a directed contract (e.g. sole source). Some stakeholders consulted said they preferred this approach.

In considering the option of a directed contract, the Commission consulted with Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC). They suggested that a competitive process remains the best way for a future Commission to select a debates producer because it is fair, transparent and competitive.

The Commission agrees with the assessment that a competitive process remains the best way to select the debates producers. However, the RFP could be simplified to solve some of the problems encountered in the last two cycles.

The 2019 and 2021 RFP focused on specifics. It defined what the Commission expected from the debates producer and included detailed deliverables. When it came to the choice of moderator and format, for instance, the Commission was specific about its expectations.

In 2021, bidders were asked to submit a format and select a moderator who achieved the outlined objectives. By evaluating the bid with those specifics defined, the process gave the perception that the bid – and therefore the choice of moderator and the format – were "rubber stamped" by the Commission. This did not allow for such important and creative choices to be fluid, dynamic and responsive to learning.

Instead of being prescriptive, a future RFP could focus on evaluating the experience and capabilities of bidders. It should clearly state a future Commission will work together with the debates producer on key decisions such as developing a format that better serves the public interest while retaining final approval. Those important decisions should not be part of the bid, but be made collectively, with the Commission having ultimate responsibility.

A future RFP should evaluate bidders' attributes, experience and ability to do what is required, rather than an actual proposal of what they are going to do. The RFP should specify those areas in which a future Commission will be involved (e.g., developing the format and selecting a moderator), and those areas in which it will not (e.g., choice of themes and questions).

Distribution remains an important part of the debates' success and an area where the DBG provided large in-kind contributions. As we will see in the next section on languages and accessibility, the ability of a debates producer to pull together diverse groups (e.g., APTN, OMNI, etc.) is a key factor in reaching audiences. Language distribution should continue to be a highly rated or even mandatory criterion in the RFP. The Commission should also ensure that it has the freedom to enter into multiple contracts. For instance, there could be an RFP for promotion, production and distribution and separate contracts for distribution for specific languages or formats.

Like distribution, debate promotion remains an important part of the debates' success and an area where the DBG provided large in-kind contributions. Promotion should continue to be a mandatory component of the RFP and should be weighted heavily in the evaluation criteria.

REAFFIRMED RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #6: A competitive process should continue to be used to select the debates producer.

3.1.8 Media accreditation

In 2021 as in 2019, the Commission was responsible for the accreditation of journalists to the debates. This accreditation provided access to the press room, where journalists can watch the debates and to the press conference room, where they can interview the leaders after the debates. Since these press conferences are broadcast live on a number of television networks, the Commission considered them as part of the overall broadcast environment of the debates in respect of which high journalistic standards must apply.

The following excerpt of our media accreditation policy, published in August 2021, explains the Commission's reasoning:

"In order to protect the integrity of the debates, the principles of high journalistic standards and journalist independence must extend to the press availabilities of the leaders held immediately after the debates when each leader takes questions from journalists. These press availabilities are broadcast live to millions of viewers and, as such, are a natural extension of the debates and an integral part of the press coverage of the events. Consequently, the Commission believes it is reasonable to expect that the journalists accredited to the debates and the press availabilities, both in a physical or virtual environment, adhere to the standards of professional journalism."

The Commission considers the debates as rare, privileged moments of a campaign where voters can hear from political leaders in real time and in an unmediated, unfiltered, and undistorted way. To achieve this, the debate environment must be free of disinformation and other forms of manipulation.

The Commission recognized that it doesn't have the authority to decide by itself whether journalists adhere to the ethical standards of their profession. Consequently, it relied on the codes of ethics of five professional journalistic organizations for its accreditation process: the Canadian Association of Journalists, the News Media Council, the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the Québec Federation of Journalists and the Québec Press Council. These organizations cover the vast majority of journalists involved in coverage of federal election campaigns. Members of these organizations were automatically given accreditation to the debates.

In order not to penalize journalists who do not belong to these organizations, the Commissions made provisions for accreditation applications from other journalists, including from other countries. Applicants had to provide examples of their work to ascertain that they are professional journalists. The Commission would then evaluate their work to determine whether it was free of conflict of interest. It relied for this on the guidelines of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

According to the CAJ, there is a conflict of interest:

• when an organization:

  • becomes an actor in the stories it tells, including providing and applying financial and legal assistance to some of its sources to work toward a desired outcome or offering free legal services, crowdfunds to help some individuals in stories hire lawyers, purchases political advertising and launches petitions;Footnote 36

Or

• when a reporter:

  • writes opinion pieces about subjects they also cover as journalists, endorses political candidates or causes, takes part in demonstrations, signs petitions, does public relations work, fundraises and makes financial contributions. Footnote 37

The Commission opened the accreditation process the day after the writ drop. Journalists had 10 days to apply. In addition, in advance of the debates, the Commissions' COVID-19 protocol with respect to attending the debates in-person were publicly available.

The Commission received 110 applications for the French language debate and 116 application for the English language debate. Of these applications, the Commission denied a total of 16 applications that sought accreditation for both debates.

In particular, the Commission rejected the applications of representatives of one organization, Rebel News Network ("Rebel"). The Commission determined that the Rebel website violated the articles of conflict of interest of the Canadian Association of Journalists. The Commission found that Rebel was in a conflict of interest because it becomes an active participant in stories it covers by launching petitions, fundraising and engaging in litigation on issues that it reports on regularly. Rebel also embeds links to its petitions and fundraising campaigns within its articles and videos.

Rebel applied for and obtained an emergency injunction from the Federal Court that obligated the Commission to accredit its members to the debates. The Federal Court ruled that Rebel "has satisfied the test for an interlocutory mandatory injunction." Reasons from the Federal Court are pending.

The Commission also rejected the accreditation of representatives of Rebel News Network in 2019 because it considered that Rebel News Network and another applicant, True North, were involved in advocacy. Rebel and True North obtained an emergency injunction, which required the Commission to approve their accreditation requests. In that case, the Federal Court ruled that denying the applicants accreditation would cause irreparable harm to their ability to cover the debates. After the 2019 debates, Rebel sought to continue with its application for judicial review. The Commission in response brought a motion to strike the application on the ground of mootness, which the Federal Court granted. Rebel then appealed the mootness motion decision to the Federal Court of Appeal. At present, Rebel is in the process of discontinuing its appeal.

In the absence of a ruling on whether it has the authority to determine criteria for media accreditation and the manner to do so, the Commission now finds itself confronted with a judicial void. The first ruling, in 2019, faulted the Commission on its procedural mechanisms. The Commission believed it had adequately addressed this issue in the 2021 debates by, among others, publishing in advance criteria against which applications would be evaluated. However, the court again granted an injunction forcing the Commission to accredit media entities that the Commission views to be in a conflict of interest. At the writing of this report, the Federal Court's reasons for the 2021 injunction proceeding are still not known. Accordingly, the Commission has limited guidance on whether it has properly addressed the question of due process. Whether the media accreditation process violates expressive freedoms remains an open question. In its decisions on individual applicants, the Commission found that the impact on an applicant's freedom of expression was outweighed by the salutary effect of the Commission carrying out its mandate or upholding high journalistic standards.

The Commission continues to view its media accreditation policy as reasonable and an appropriate exercise of its delegated authority. It is the Commission's duty to provide for Canadians a debate environment free from disinformation, manipulation, or conflicts of interest as prohibited by the relevant professional journalist associations.

Regardless, the Commission faces a dilemma: to continue to be responsible for media accreditation at the risk of being overturned by the courts, or approve all accreditation requests regardless of the applicants' qualifications as professional journalists. This would mean that anybody who claims to be a journalist could be accredited to the debates, regardless of any qualification or a reasonable vetting process.

In the absence of a ruling on its authority over the media accreditation process (including the "scrum" after the debates) and the applicable criteria thereto, the Commission is not in a position to make a recommendation at this time. We have outlined above an issue that will have to be resolved before the next debates. Whether this authority to accredit media properly should rest with the Commission is yet to be determined.

3.1.9 Languages & accessibility

The Commission's OICs state:

"It is desirable that leaders' debates reach all Canadians, including those with disabilities, those living in remote areas and those living in official language minority communities"Footnote 38 and that the Commission should "endeavour to ensure that the leaders' debates are available in languages other than French and English, and, in doing so, pay special attention to Canada's Indigenous languages."Footnote 39

For the leaders' debates to be a democratic exercise, citizens must be able to access and experience the debates in an accessible way. To reach as many Canadians as possible, the Commission must ensure the debates' signal reaches as many Canadian households as possible; that Canadians are able to watch, listen or read the debates in a language and format that is accessible to them; and that the debates allow them to engage in a way that makes them feel that the debates are for them.

In 2021, both debates were translated into French and English as well as into 14 other languages, including six Indigenous languages, ASL and LSQ. They were also available in closed captioningFootnote 40 and described video.

Language viewership
  September 8 
French  debate TV
September 8 
French debate digital
September 9
English debate TV
September 9
English debate digital
TOTAL
ASL Not offered 1,364 Not offered 26,841 28,205
LSQ Not offered 7,022 Not offered 561 7,583
Described Video 23,000 437 14,000 4767 42,204
Arabic Data not available 476 Data not available 349 Data not available
Cantonese 15,000 761 2,000 938 18,699
Denesuline Not offered Not offered Data not available 1,141 1,141
East Cree Not offered Not offered Data not available 508 508
Innu 16,000 471 Not offered Not offered 16,471
Inuktitut Not offered Not offered Data not available 546 546
Italian 7,000 406 11,000 163 18,569
Mandarin 3,000 707 21,000 1,271 25,978
Ojibway 5,000 839 Not offered Not offered 5,839
Plains Cree Not offered Not offered 1,000 1,104 2,104
Punjabi 4,000 1,737 27,000 1,729 34,466
Tagalog 15,000 3,723 35,000 1,344 55,067

In 2019 and 2021, language interpretation was included in the request for proposal (RFP), making it the responsibility of the debates producer. In 2021, the Debate Broadcast Group (DBG) included the addition of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) as part of the partnership, and OMNI as a distribution partner. These networks were key to the success of language interpretation and distribution. A future Commission should work with the debates producer and stakeholders to explore a way to offer ASL and LSQ on television, in addition to making it available digitally.

To best serve non-official language communities, a future Commission should develop relationships and contracts with broadcasters and partners who have strong existing relationships with these communities. A future RFP could evaluate bidders not only on their ability and commitment to provide interpretation and translation, but also on whether they can guarantee distribution and promotion to those important communities. As noted above, a future Commission should maintain the freedom to have additional contracts with distributors and organizations to ensure the feed of these languages finds the right audience.

Following the 2021 election, the debates producers told the Commission that translation was one of the most onerous parts of the debate production. The DGB worked directly with the Translation Bureau, and both parties said the relationship was positive and productive. Translation represents about 25% of the production budget. The Bureau said there would be no cost efficiency to removing the translation from the RFP (and having it rest with a future Commission). However, the Commission heard from the Translation Bureau and the debates producer that language interpretation is an area that would benefit from a longer runway.

In post-debate consultations, the Translation Bureau talked of the benefit of having contact between election cycles. This would allow policy development for the choice of Indigenous languages, and for the Bureau to work with Indigenous language and ASL and LSQ interpreters to get them "debate ready" before the debate. It would also provide the ability to test production decisions related to interpretation, and to develop an outreach campaign for the specific Indigenous language communities. This would lead to better representation of Indigenous languages because the languages would be chosen based on population and communities served, rather than on availability of qualified interpreters.

The Translation Bureau indicated that for many of the simultaneous translators, interpreting a debate is "the greatest event of their career." Having a relationship between election cycles would allow amplification of this investment by connecting interpreters with other departments in government while they are in the national capital region for the debates, and to work with the interpreters to develop outreach campaigns.

In consultations with the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Commission learned that the Indigenous Languages Act (ILA) is in the early days of operationalization, working to create a policy on Indigenous language translation and interpretation. The government department says it considers the debates to be one of the most high-profile initiatives in the space, noting that a future Commission would be able to share findings from its experience.

REAFFIRMED RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #7: Debates should continue to be available in French, English and other languages, paying special attention to Canada's Indigenous languages.

3.2 Improving a future Debates Commission

3.2.1 Debates promotion and citizen engagement

In 2019, the Commission tested three different outreach and promotional models and learned that the most effective and cost-efficient way to promote debates was to incorporate promotion into the request for proposal (RFP) for the debates producer.

In 2021, promotion for the debates – how, where, when, why to watch – was part of the debates producer's scope of work. The DBG promoted the debates on all channels and platforms.

The promotional strategy for the debates was also directly linked with production and distribution. As a result, debate promotion focused on infiltration through distribution, and promotion of that infiltration. As noted, the debates aired live on 36 television networks, four radio networks, and more than 115 digital streams. This level of distribution is advantageous because it reaches people who do not typically engage in politics. Like the Super Bowl, or the Oscars, even people who did not watch the debates were aware that they were happening or had happened. This is important because research shows that people who watched even just part of the debates experienced an increased ability to rate party leaders, and an increased election interest and increased interest in politics more generally.Footnote 41

With promotion firmly in the hands of the debates producer, the intention was to focus outreach efforts on stakeholder engagement with specific communities. The strategy was to develop an outreach campaign to promote Indigenous languages, accessible formats, and non-official languages.

However, with the snap election call coming shortly after the Commission restarted its operations, we had to focus on the main priority of debate production, and there was insufficient time to enter into outreach contracts. Previous sections on reach, languages and accessibility have outlined the Commission's suggestions for how to move forward in this area.

In the future, there should be a focus on ensuring distribution partners for Indigenous languages, ASL, LSQ and non-official languages to maximize reach in these communities. Work can be done "off cycle" to develop relationships with organizations who are leaders in specific communities: Canadians living with disabilities, ethno-cultural groups (to promote various language offerings), Indigenous groups (to promote Indigenous language feeds) and youth (to promote and create political awareness in the next generation). A focus in these areas aligns with CES findings that more work could be undertaken to build awareness of debates in future federal elections.Footnote 42

This "off cycle" work is particularly important in a minority government context as it would effectively allow a future Commission to be ready to "press play" in a snap election. It is unlikely that an entity that is recreated less than one year before an election will have the time to develop contacts, relationships and resources or outreach contracts with organizations for outreach purposes.

Minority government context and off-cycle considerations

In post-debate consultations, the Commission repeatedly heard that there is work to be done between elections. Whoever is entrusted with the public trust of debates needs to maintain some permanent capacity between elections to ensure it can organize debates in minority government situations, maintain relationships with interested parties between elections and foster discussion about best practices in debate formats and production, both in Canada and in other countries.

The DBG said the request for proposal and contract should be released and awarded as early as possible. This would allow the debates producer to secure the venue, hire interpreters, begin production design and work with the entity to set the debate dates.

In 2019 and 2021, the Commission received advice and guidance from the Canadian Cyber Centre at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), an organization with a mandate to examine threats to the democratic process. In its publication, "Cyber threats to Canada's democratic process: July 2021 update,"Footnote 43 the CSE outlines that democratic processes remain a popular target for threats. Election Canada's Public Opinion Research Study on Electoral MattersFootnote 44 found that that 78% of respondents saw "false information online" as one of the factors that could have the most impact on the 2021 election.

CSE noted that it would like to offer more services to protect the debates and get involved earlier in the process – at least 12 months before the debates – to ensure that the advice they provide is actionable. It also recommended that the selection of the debate dates and location be made as early as possible, and possibly be separated or removed from the debates producer RFP. This would allow "off cycle" work between CSE and the venue to occur separately from the procurement process.

CSE also proposed an ongoing relationship with the debate venue. This, they contend, would allow cyber security to be considered in all areas of the debate organization – such as IT infrastructure at the debate venue – and not only with the television broadcast of the debate.

While the Commission has taken action to try to combat disinformation in both 2019 and 2021 (hosting and promoting verified debate video on its website, working with CSE to ensure the debate broadcast feed is protected, etc.), there is more that could be done in this space to strengthen the cybersecurity of the debate venue and broadcast feeds and to ensure the digital spaces broadcasting the debate are safe spaces, free of disinformation. Some social media platforms do not allow broadcasters to limit comments from the public. There was concern that the comments on debate digital pages could spread misinformation. A future Commission could work with digital and social media platforms to combat misinformation and create a safe space to host the debates digitally.

As noted above, the Translation Bureau had similar feedback for the Commission. The Bureau suggested an operational existence between cycles to better serve Indigenous language communities. They also put forward a request that debate dates and location be set as early as possible. In a majority government context, they advocated for fixed debate dates.

Off-cycle work through the establishment of a permanent capacity between election cycles could include:

  • Working with the Department of Canadian Heritage and Statistics Canada on a population-based policy for Indigenous interpretation;
  • Working with the Translation Bureau to select and train interpreters for debates;
  • Working with Indigenous leaders and communities to promote Indigenous language offerings;
  • Selecting the debate venue;
  • Consulting with the Canadian Cyber Centre to ensure cyber security of the debate venue and debate feed;
  • Working with stakeholders to ensure debate integrity and combat disinformation around debates;
  • Consulting with debate organizers internationally on best practices on format and moderating;
  • Testing debate formats;
  • Selecting and developing potential moderators;
  • Providing advice and guidance to other debate organizers;
  • Cultivating stakeholder relationships; and/or
  • Developing outreach contracts to ensure all Canadians – even those especially underserved – engage with leaders' debates.

NEW RECOMMENDATION

Recommendation #8: The Commission should maintain sufficient permanent capacity between elections to ensure it can organize debates at short notice and to cultivate relationships between elections to foster discussion, both in Canada and in other countries.

3.2.2 Summary of expenditures

The Commission received a budget of $5.5 million from the Government for each of the 2019 and 2021 election cycles. In 2019, of this amount, it spent approximately $3.9 million, and in 2021, $3.5 million. Categories of expenditures and comparisons to the 2019 cycle are as follows:

Leaders' Debates Commission – Estimated Summary of Expenditures
Activity First mandate (2019 debates)
Actual * ($ millions)
Second mandate (2021 debates)
Preliminary estimate ** ($ millions)
Research, evaluation and outreach initiatives 0.3 0.1
Professional services 0.5 0.5
Contract for incremental costs for debate production 1.7 1.7
Commission salaries and administrative expenses 1.1 0.8
Privy Council Office administrative expenses 0.3 0.5
Total 3.9 3.5

* Actuals are the authorities used in the current fiscal year published in the public accounts of 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
** Preliminary estimates are the authorities used in the current fiscal year published in the public accounts of 2020-2021, and an estimate for 2021-2022. Figures may not add up to totals due to rounding.

In 2021, research, evaluation, and outreach initiatives included research undertaken by the Canadian Election Study (CES) consortium. There were no expenditures on outreach initiatives, which is a departure from 2019.

Professional services included legal services, website coding, report editing and layout.

Contract for incremental costs for debate production included funding for services that are above and beyond the historical expectations of a debates producer (e.g.: the obligation to distribute the signal freely, alternative formats for accessibility, language interpretation). The DBG absorbed costs that – historically – have been incurred by debates producers (e.g. staffing, promotion, remotes, connectivity, and technical distribution).

Commission salaries and administrative expenses included those expenses related primarily to employee services (one full-time and four part-time staff, including the Debates Commissioner) and support to the seven-person Advisory Board.

Privy Council administrative expenses included the provision of back-office support in relation to procurement, finance, information technology, personnel, and accommodations.

As in 2019, the Commission benefitted from significant in-kind contributions from the debates producer and partner organizations. These additional contributions, valued at approximately $3 million, also involved extensive debate promotion by the DBG.

3.2.3 Future mandate, authorities and governance

The Commission has now been responsible for the organization of leaders' debates in the last two federal election campaigns: 2019 and 2021. After the 2019 experience, the Commission recommended to the Government that it eventually be made permanent through legislation.

In 2020, while being clear that the Government hadn't made a decision on this recommendation, the President of the Queen's Privy Council and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs did note in response to the 2019 report that he would "favour an ongoing permanent structure in legislation, which would provide that basic platform in general elections of an accessible, open and fair debate between leaders with a properly independent commission to make those decisions."Footnote 45

More recently, the Prime Minister's December 2021 mandate letter to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities asked the Minister to "consider the forthcoming report of Canada's Leaders' Debates Commissioner on how to improve leaders' debates and take steps to ensure that they better serve the public interest."Footnote 46

In considering the future of debate organization in Canada, the Commission has begun its work from a first principle: leaders' debates are critical elements of an election. Their stability and predictability are therefore important to a healthy democracy.

Reviewing its 2021 experience, the Commission believes it has made a meaningful contribution to this first principle in the following ways:

Increased viewership

In 2019, the Commission debates registered a record viewership of 19 million for both debates. In 2021, viewership stood at 14 million and was therefore still high compared to previous debates and other "event television" in 2021.

Wider reach and accessibility

Making the debate signal free for distribution enabled multiple partners to distribute the debates and increased reach considerably. The English-language and French-language debates were available live on 36 television networks, four radio networks, and more than 115 digital streams.

The debates were also available in 16 other languages, including six Indigenous languages, ASL and LSQ. They were available in closed captioning and described video as well. This fostered engagement in communities that are often on the margins of political involvement.

The 2019 formation of a wider media coalition to produce the debates resulted in greater buy-in from the media in the debates. The debates became the most prominent campaign event again in 2021, as they had been in 2019, as evidenced by both the viewership figures above and social media analysis.Footnote 47

The Commission's production budget allowed the media consortium to produce high-quality debates, event television which increased their impact. By comparison, almost twice as many Canadians watched the debates in 2021 as watched the Super Bowl.

Depoliticization and predictability

The creation of the Commission provided greater stability to the debates. For the first time, political parties agreed to participate without any pre-conditions.

Transparency

The Commission established clear and transparent rules for the debates. This included the establishment of participation criteria that were developed following wide consultations. They were also communicated widely before the election call. The greater level of transparency provided better conditions for trust in the debates.

Knowledge base

The Commission's research, consultation process and analysis following each political cycle are creating a knowledge base about debates that would not exist otherwise. Commission staff are regularly invited to symposiums outside Canada to share their experience and data. The studies and polling commissioned are breaking new ground about best practices in debates and about what voters expect and get out of debates. This objective data guides the improvement of debates with every cycle.

The future

In light of the LDC's 2021 stakeholder feedback, it is necessary to think clearly about four potential options for the future of debate organization:

  1. The discontinuation of the Leaders' Debates Commission;
  2. The continuation of the Commission as is: current mandate and operating approach (status quo);
  3. Incremental change to the Commission's current mandate and operating approach; and
  4. The establishment of a 'full service' Commission responsible for 'in-house' debate production.

The Commission has reflected whether Option 1 should be considered but does not believe that leaders' debates are sufficiently, stable, predictable and effective to warrant the discontinuation of a publicly-supported debate entity. Moreover, we believe that a future entity can continue to serve the public interest, by ensuring the broadest possible viewership and accessibility of debates, by setting high standards of transparency, cost-effectiveness and relevance, and by doing its part to help build a strong community of expertise across the country. It will be important to ensure that a future entity be subject to regular review, with institutional options to be considered as part of the process. 

It is clear that a continuation of the status quo under Option 2 is not optimal given the above assessment of the 2021 debates and the recommendations related to the role of a Commission.

The establishment of a "full service" Commission or mandating a future Commission to produce debates in-house, as noted under Option 4, would necessitate the onboarding of significant talent and expertise, and would be expected to result in higher costs for debate production versus a contractual relationship with an existing entity. Such an approach may also risk a Commission's relationship with media organizations, who are key stakeholders and who indicated a willingness to work with the Commission in 2019 and 2021.

The Commission believes that Option 3 is therefore appropriate to ensure the delivery of debates in the public interest, as it has concluded that there is need for a greater role for itself in debate format and moderation. In other words, what is needed is modest, incremental change to the Commission's existing mandate and operational approach. These incremental changes are based on the findings and recommendations outlined throughout the report. Much of this incremental change can be accomplished with existing authorities, but more explicit responsibility in the Commission's enabling instrument to have final approval for setting debate format and moderation may be warranted. The Commission would also require a clear mandate and more funding should the recommendation to have the ability and authority to consider organizing additional leaders' debates where feasible be endorsed. 

Two comments received from the public aptly sum up the task for a future Commission:

"The work the Debate Commission does is important, but there is work to be done to ensure that the work they do is not done in vain."

"En tant qu'organisme responsable de l'organisation du débat des chefs, vous êtes tenus de vous assurer que le débat soit présenté dans un cadre neutre et impartial, afin que les citoyens puissent faire un choix éclairé par rapport au candidat ou parti qui représente le mieux ses valeurs."

The Commission has concluded that there are certain attributes that are key contributors to the successful organization of debates by a future entity. These are:

  • Independence: apolitical and non-partisan, independent and perceived to be independent from the government of the day; 
  • Legitimacy: viewed as unimpeachably operating in the public interest and broadly accepted by political parties;
  • Transparency: providing clear reasons for its decisions and opportunities for public input;
  • Accountability: efficient measurement and full reporting on its actions and its costs;
  • Stability: funding and mandate certainty;
  • Flexibility: in purchasing and in both minority and majority contexts; 
  • Expertise: delivery of informative, effective, and compelling debates, learning from past experience and international best practices; and
  • Permanence: operation across multiple electoral cycles.

Authorities

The Commission recognizes there are likely a number of institutional models that could be considered to deliver debates in the public interest, in consideration of these key attributes. We would encourage the Government to explore a number of options in this regard, including:

  1. The merits of stand-alone legislation or amendments to existing legislation, or both;
  2. The merits of an independent public commission model or ongoing support for an independent non-governmental entity;
  3. Determining whether other entities (e.g., CRTC, Elections Canada, or CBC/Radio-Canada) have specific roles to play;
  4. Considering a periodic review process, such as every five years, to assess whether and how the independent entity is delivering on its mandate and what, if any, changes may be warranted.

We are increasingly concerned about what we consider to be a growing gap between network television imperatives and what the public expects of debates. We believe that, as the custodian of the public trust, and as an entity mandated to protect the public interest in these debates, the Commission has a duty to be involved in determining what format and moderation attributes best address the democratic needs of the public. We also believe that the Commission can play a role in these issues without jeopardizing the editorial independence of the individuals who moderate the debates and ask questions of the leaders. Finally, we believe this can best be achieved through meaningful dialogue between elections.

The Commission provides a service to Canadians. In the future, it needs to continue doing so on an independent basis and with broad political legitimacy. The Commission was well served by its mandate and could continue to be served by a similar instrument, subject to the Government's consideration of our earlier recommendations. Nevertheless, the Commission reiterates its recommendation from 2019 that, ultimately, there should be an opportunity for Parliament to contribute to the mandate of a future entity with periodic review. Legislation is viewed as one of the preferred means of achieving this outcome.

Governance

Debates Commissioner

In both 2019 and 2021, the Leaders' Debates Commission was headed by a Debates Commissioner who was a part-time OIC appointee. The Government announced the reappointment of the Commissioner in November 2020.Footnote 48

We believe that it continues to be appropriate to have a future Commission headed by a single Commissioner because it provides for effective organizational direction setting. Post-debate consultations and the Commission's findings have revealed that there is an important skillset for an effective Debates Commissioner, owing primarily to the fact that their decisions must be unimpeachably viewed as being taken in the public interest. A Debates Commissioner must fulfill the functions of the position in a manner that is neutral, fair, and principled. Desired qualities include a degree of respect or name recognition such that they are seen across the political spectrum and more generally in the Canadian population as impartial. A secondary skillset to seek would include experience in broadcasting or journalism, experience in debate negotiations, and experience building relationships amongst political parties.

The appointment of the Debates Commissioner should be validated through consultation with opposition parties. This gives the Commission non-partisan objectivity, visibility, and profile, as well as credibility for decisions on things such as the participation criteria. Language detailing the process and manner by which these consultations will be undertaken should be considered for addition to a Commission's potential future enabling instrument.

Recommendation #9: The Commission reaffirms it should be headed by a Debates Commissioner, whose appointment process involves consultation with the registered political parties represented in the House of Commons.

Recommendation #10: The Commission reaffirms it should ultimately be established through legislation (or similar mechanism) with a periodic review process, such as every five years, in order to prioritize greater continuity, transparency, and access to resources. Its institutional makeup should prioritize real and perceived operational independence, cost effectiveness, and administrative agility.

PRINCIPAL RECOMMENDATION: We recommend the continuation and improvement of a permanent publicly funded entity to organize leaders' debates that is subject to periodic review.

Advisory Board

As in 2019, the Commission's Advisory Board provided an essential service to the 2021 Leaders' Debates Commission. The diversity of viewpoints and the inclusion of both political and media experience, as well as a mature and objective judgement and keen interest in trust in public institutions, were instrumental and especially valuable to the Commission carrying out its mandate.

We conclude that a future Commission should continue to seek and rely upon counsel from an Advisory Board that brings a range of perspectives and skills. Should a future Commission exercise a greater role in determining debate format and selecting debate moderators, expertise in these areas would be an important component of a future Advisory Board.

Conclusion

Debates play an essential role in the health of Canada's democracy. Millions of Canadians watch debates in every election, testament to their importance. In this report, we propose ways to make them even more meaningful to Canadian voters as they evaluate and choose leaders to represent them in Parliament.

We wish to thank our advisory board as well as our 2021 partners in the Debates Production Group for their commitment to the leaders' debates. We also thank academics at the University of Toronto and other Canadian universities for their research and expertise. To the more than 40 stakeholders, both here and abroad, and to the more than 1,100 Canadians who were generous with their thoughts on how to improve debates, we extend our gratitude.

Our ongoing challenge is to ensure that debates not only reach people but strengthen their trust in public institutions and the political process. This is especially important in an era where disinformation and distrust threaten to undermine the foundations of democracy. To achieve this, the Commission and its partners must endeavour to produce debates that represent the public interest. We hope that the proposals we make in this report will contribute to an environment that fosters thoughtful debate and civil discourse on the issues that determine the future course of the country.

RECOMMENDATIONS

These recommendations seek to improve the mandate, role and structure of the Commission or an independent body. For the purpose of readability, we use the term Commission.

PRINCIPAL RECOMMENDATION:

We recommend the continuation and improvement of a permanent publicly funded entity to organize leaders' debates that is subject to periodic review.

NEW RECOMMENDATIONS

Recommendation #1: The Commission should have final approval over the format and should work with stakeholders between elections to develop a simplified format that best serves Canadians.

Recommendation #2: The Commission should select the debate moderator(s) based on expert consultations.

Recommendation #3: The Commission should organize two publicly funded leaders' debates (one in each official language) and have the ability, funding and authority to consider organizing additional leaders' debates where feasible. It should also have the ability to provide advice and expertise to other debate organizers.

Recommendation #8: The Commission should maintain sufficient permanent capacity between elections to ensure it can organize debates at short notice and to cultivate relationships between elections to foster discussion, both in Canada and in other countries.

REAFFIRMED RECOMMENDATIONS

Recommendation #4: Participation criteria should be as objective as possible and made public before the election campaign begins. The criteria should be set by the Debates Commissioner.

Recommendation #5: Political parties should be encouraged rather than compelled to participate in leaders' debates.

Recommendation #6: A competitive process should continue to be used to select the debates producer.

Recommendation #7: Debates should continue to be available in French, English and other languages, paying special attention to Canada's Indigenous languages.

Recommendation #9: The Commission reaffirms it should be headed by a Debates Commissioner, whose appointment process involves consultation with the registered political parties represented in the House of Commons.

Recommendation #10: The Commission reaffirms it should ultimately be established through legislation (or similar mechanism) with a periodic review process, such as every five years, in order to prioritize greater continuity, transparency, and access to resources. Its institutional makeup should prioritize real and perceived operational independence, cost effectiveness, and administrative agility.


Appendices

Appendix 1 – Leaders' Debates Commission – Orders in Council

Appendix 2 – Leaders' Debates Commission – Advisory Board terms of reference

Mandate

The Leaders' Debates Commission advisory board is established to provide advice to the Debates Commissioner on matters relating to the organization of debates in Canada's two official languages during the 2019-2021 federal election campaigns. Considering that leaders' debates are an essential contribution to the health of Canadian democracy, board members will be guided by the pursuit of the public interest and by the principles of independence, impartiality, credibility, democratic citizenship, civic education, inclusion and cost-effectiveness.

Membership

The Advisory Board is to be composed of seven members, and its composition is to be reflective of gender balance and Canadian diversity and is to represent a range of political affiliations and expertise.

Members are appointed by the Debates Commissioner to hold office on a part-time basis. The Advisory Board will meet at least four times in the period of one year before a general election and at least two times in the period of five months after a general election. The meetings will be chaired by the Debates Commissioner.

Role of Board members

The Board members will advise the Commission on how to carry out its mandate, including issues such as:

  • ensuring that the debates are broadcast and distributed widely and free of charge.
  • ensuring that the debates reach as many Canadians as possible, including those living in remote areas, those living in official language minority communities and those living with disabilities.
  • ensuring that the debates are conducted under high journalistic standards.
  • ensuring that calls for proposals for the production and distribution of the debates identify clear criteria by which the proposals will be evaluated.
  • ensuring that the Commission undertake an awareness raising campaign and outreach activities to foster interest in and awareness of the debates.
  • ensuring that the Commission provide advice and support for other debates relative to the general election.
  • ensuring that the criteria for participation of political parties in the debates be applied fairly and in full transparency.
  • providing advice on evidence-based assessment of the leaders' debates and recommendations for the Commission's report to government.

Compensation of Board members

Members of the Board shall be eligible for reimbursement of reasonable travel expenses from their residence to Ottawa and shall be compensated for their participation in meetings of the Board at a rate of $450.00 per diem.

Operating principles

Regardless of their backgrounds and affiliations, members shall serve in an individual capacity, having regard to the public interest, and not as the delegates or representatives of particular organizations, sectors or groups. While knowledge of political context and processes is needed, particular care must be taken to avoid political partisanship.

Members of the Board should declare any actual or potential conflicts of interest at the start of all meetings, including meetings of committees or working groups. A determination of whether recusal is appropriate shall be made in consultation with the Commissioner.

Deliberations by the Board and its committees and working groups shall be open, frank and confidential, in conformity with Chatham House Rules. Different perspectives should be presented with candour and accorded respect. In communicating with stakeholders and media about the Board and its work, Board members should respect the confidentiality of their colleagues and shall not attribute statements or views to individual fellow members.

Appendix 3 – Stakeholders Consulted

  • Former leaders' debate producers from CBC, CTV and Radio Canada (see Appendix 3 Producer Workshop)
    • Laura Stephenson, Western University,  co-investigator of the Canadian Election Study
  • Producers, moderators and executives who have produced, moderated and organized in the USA, France, United Kingdom and Germany (see Appendix 6 International Lessons Learned)
  • Accessible Media Inc. (AMI)
  • André Blais, Université de Montréal
  • Aengus Bridgman, Canadian Elections Study
  • Bloc Québécois
  • Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ)
  • Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
  • Conseil de presse du Québec (CPQ)
  • Conservative Party of Canada
  • David Coletto (Abacus Data)
  • The Commission on Presidential Debates
  • Council of Canadians with Disabilities
  • CRIC
  • The Cyber Centre
  • Sabreena Delhon, The Samara Centre for Democracy
  • Department of Indigenous Languages, Department of Canadian Heritage
  • Jennifer Ditchburn, Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP)
  • Claire Durand, Professor at l'Université de Montréal, former President of the World Association for Public Opinion Research
  • Joanna Everitt, Univesity of New Brunswick
  • Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ)
  • Brian Gallant
  • Edward Greenspon, Public Policy Forum
  • Green Party of Canada
  • Graham Fox
  • Allison Harell, Université du Québec à Montréal, co-investigator of the Canadian Election Study
  • Richard Johnston, Professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, former co-investigator of the Canadian Election Study
  • Donna Jodhan
  • Liberal Party of Canada
  • Peter Loewen, University of Toronto and co-investigator of the Canadian Election Study
  • Joanne MacDonald, former Vice-President of CTV News
  • John McAndrews, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto
  • Jennifer McGuire, former Editor-in-Chief of CBC News
  • Spencer McKay, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia
  • National NewsMedia Council (NNC)
  • New Democratic Party
  • People's Party of Canada
  • Privy Council Office – Machinery of Government
  • Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC)
  • Radio Canada
  • Daniel Rubenson, Ryerson University,  co-investigator of the Canadian Election Study
  • Tamara Small, University of Guelph
  • Laura Stephenson, Western University,  co-investigator of the Canadian Election Study
  • Translation Bureau
  • Christopher Waddell, Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
  • Written submissions from approximately 1,100 members of the public

Appendix 4 – Media Coverage

Overview
In general, both the French- and English-language media coverage related to the  2021 general election leaders' debates was factual, balanced and neutral. Coverage centred on messages associated with the Commission's announcements related to its amended Order in Council mandate. As expected, there was a range of views expressed in opinion pieces and editorials. Criticism focused on format, moderation, number of debates and the role of the Commission.

Methodology
The following analysis is a broad, though not fully comprehensive, review of the media coverage beginning with the Commission's announcement of the debate producer. We have attempted to illustrate both the neutral/positive and negative coverage received during this last election cycle. We have not quantified the overall volume of coverage, though it was noticeably higher than in 2019. Nor have we attempted to assess how the coverage received in 2021, may have influenced public opinion related to the Commission's activities or the debates themselves.    

Announcement of the Debate Broadcast Group (DBG):
Media coverage of the Debate Broadcast Group as the producer of the leaders' debates was factual and neutral/positive in both tone and content. The media highlighted the inclusion of APTN as a broadcast partner in the partnership of news organizations, translation into indigenous languages and other non-official languages as well as the debate's wide & free distribution across Canada.

The headline of the Canadian Press story on the day of the announcement (April 1, 2021) was: "Canada's next federal election leaders' debates includes APTN as broadcast partner"

CTV News, on the same date, featured the tweets from the Commission in its story and wrote the following:

"The debates will be widely distributed on broadcast, digital and social platforms…They will also be broadcast in Indigenous languages and non-official languages, and will be made available in ASL, LSQ, closed caption and described video."

Le Devoir's article highlighted all the French-language media partners in the Groupe de diffusion des débats (GDD) and the free signal for Canadians.

Participation criteria decision:
The media coverage was factual and neutral in both French and English. The exclusion of Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People's Party of Canada, from the two leaders' debates, dominated by far the headlines and received national attention. Almost all major newspapers covering the story in both languages led with this decision, which had been based on participation criteria set by the Commission in June 2021. Coverage focused on the PPC receiving 3.27 per cent in the national polls and therefore not meeting the 4 per cent threshold set for inclusion in the leaders' debates.

"Five federal party leaders invited to election debates; Bernier out," wrote CTV News. "Maxime Bernier, western separatist party both denied participation in official federal debates," headlined the Toronto Star. "People's Party out of federal election debate as new criteria announced," titled Global News.

All French-language media outlets led with the decision on Maxime Bernier. «Maxime Bernier exclu des débats des chefs, » wrote La Presse. «Le chef du Parti populaire du Canada, Maxime Bernier, est exclu des débats des chefs, » headlined L'actualité. « Pas de Maxime Bernier à tous les débats, » added TVA Nouvelles.

The criteria established were widely accepted and not disputed by the PPC, nor by any other party or organ. Maxime Bernier said he was "disappointed, but not surprised" by the decision. "I do not blame the commission, whose criteria were clear and objective." 

The Globe and Mail's Andrew Coyne did ask why the establishment of 4 per cent? Why five days? in an opinion piece where he argued that Bernier should have been at the leaders' debates. "A line has to be drawn somewhere, but the reasoning behind the line-drawing should be transparent and fair. In this case, it seems to have been drawn to no other purpose but to keep the Peeps out," he wrote. "It is not up to some faceless commissioner to decide who should be eligible to participate. It is up to the voters."
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-why-maxime-bernier-and-his-noxious-views-should-be-at-the-leaders/ (Sept 8, 2021)

The French editorials and opinion piece supported the Commission's decision on the 4 per cent threshold, which the PPC had not succeeded in reaching.

"We didn't ask him for the moon! His party had to have at least 4% of the vote OR be represented in Ottawa by an MP who was elected as a member of the party OR have received at least 4% of the vote in the most recent federal election. If only one of these criteria was met, they could take part in the debates. And let's not forget that sorting out the leaders for debates is not new. It's perfectly normal. You can't give a free pass to anyone who wants to speak." (Alexandre Sirois, La Presse,  August 25 2021, Donnez un miroir à Bernier !)
https://www.lapresse.ca/debats/editoriaux/2021-08-25/droit-au-but/donnez-un-miroir-a-bernier.php (August 25, 2021)

"Maxime Bernier will not have a place in the leaders' debates. I say "Bravo". A political leader who uses the words "despot", "segregation" and "cartel" in every possible way clearly has no place in a transnational debate at a time as important as ours." (Marie-Eve Doyon, Journal de Québec, August 31, 2021 Non, Bernier ne méritait pas sa place au débat)
https://www.journaldequebec.com/2021/08/31/non-bernier-ne-meritait-pas-sa-place-au-debat (August 31, 2021)

The Debates
French leaders' debate, Sept 8, 2021:

Criticism of the French-language debate focused on whether the debate had given rise to meaningful exchanges. Comments centered on the following: a busy format, too many questions, overproduced, too many journalists on stage and little opportunity for leaders to debate.
The format did not dominate coverage in the English-language press, rather mentioned in passing, as a one-liner in articles discussing the issues tackled in the debate. The Calgary Herald noted that the moderator Patrice Roy "did an admirable job of keeping the participants in line and within their time limits."

The French-language debate was less criticized than the English-language debate.

The French press described the French-language debate in these terms:

  • A debate with "lot of things" in it, but "I don't know if people will have found it worthwhile. There were too many questions, and not enough time on the issues. By doing this, the politicians are given less time to think about their answers and they respond with ready-made answers." -  (La Presse, Sept 9, 2021)
    https://www.lapresse.ca/elections-federales/2021-09-09/debat-des-chefs/qui-a-gagne-nos-experts-se-prononcent.php
  • The format "was supposed to contrast the proposals of the five main party leaders more often led to dull exchanges, punctuated by a few telling moments."– (Boris Proulx, Mylène  Crête, Le Devoir, Sept 9, 2021)
    https://www.ledevoir.com/politique/canada/630897/debat-sobre-en-vue-du-scrutin
  • "These debates (French and English leaders' debates) seemed designed to showcase news anchors and journalists rather than leaders…. This debate (French) was less painful than its English counterpart, but I found no other quality in it… Patrice Roy seemed to want to take the opportunity to show once and for all that he is the host of the hour… To debate is to discuss a topic or situation with one or more interlocutors. It is not answering questions. Yet that is what the leaders' debate has been reduced to, barely giving each other time to respond, let alone debate… Too happy to appear on camera, the invited journalists took the opportunity to show off their knowledge." – (Guy Fournier, Journal de Montréal, Sept 14, 2021)
    https://www.journaldemontreal.com/2021/09/14/des-debats-qui-sont-une-triste-farce
  • "The format was very busy. A lot was asked of the leaders, it was a tall order compared to last week. There were several types of questions, the rapid-fire questions from the reporters were very intrusive… There was a lot of information to take in. I don't know if people have been able to hear and grasp all the information that the politicians have tried to present to them… Have we been well informed, have questions been answered? Did citizens hear what they wanted? I don't know, there were so many things!" – (Judith Desmeules, Le Soleil, Sept 8, 2021)
    https://www.lesoleil.com/2021/09/09/deuxieme-debat-en-francais-charge-pour-des-chefs-disciplines-a72cd84722b2282121626ade47125263
  • "I hate the formula, it limits exchanges. The questions from the citizens? Do we need this? No. I don't think this debate will change much." (Paul Arcand, 98.5 FM, September 9, 2021)
    https://www.985fm.ca/nouvelles/opinions/422528/revue-de-presse-474

The English-language press described the French debate in these terms:

  • "largely flat debate Wednesday, where each participant mostly served viewers pre-packaged lines on hot-button issues" (Christopher Nardi, National Post, September 9, 2021)
  • "allowed for few interactions between Trudeau and O'Toole - seemed to take the sting from most of the attacks" (Althia Raj, Toronto Star, September 9, 2021)
  • "kept the leaders from directly confronting each other for significant portions of the program" (Tonda MacCharles, Toronto Star, September 8, 2021)
  • "an over-produced, stilted all-leaders French-language debate" (Justin Ling, Macleans, September 9, 2021)

There was also coverage of the injunction successfully pursued by one organization originally denied media accreditation.
"Rebel News wins court battle to cover leaders' debates, will accredit 11 journalists" (Canadian Press, Sept 8, 2021)

"A judge in the Federal Court of Canada has ruled the Leaders' Debates Commission incorrectly denied Rebel News Network accreditation to Wednesday's French-language and Thursday's English-language competition between the major party leaders."
https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/election-2021/judge-to-rule-today-whether-rebel-news-may-be-accredited-to-cover-the-leaders-debates

English leaders' debate, Sept 9, 2021:
Criticism of the English-language debate centered on the format, which was not deemed to had given rise to debate and meaningful exchanges, too many journalists on stage, the moderation and questions. There was over 130 articles written on the English debate, almost four times the amount than for the French debate.

The format was widely criticized. The following words and phrases were used to describe the debate: "a farce, fractious, ghastly, an embarrassment, poorly conceived, stupidly structured, restrictive, disservice to viewers, an insult to the intelligence, failed to offer viewers a fair portrait of the principal leaders, train wreck, clumsy, an all time low, an embarrassing failure, a nadir on the history of debating, frenetic, and a debacle, not a debate."

There were calls to "take the entire format back to the drawing board" and produce an "old-style debate to provide clarity" as this format had resulted in "changed channels and not minds" given the leaders "were stifled by the debate format and the moderator's shrill discipline" in this "tightly controlled" environment.

"A restrictive format and questioners who suppressed confrontation conspired to prevent Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau from facing his Conservative tormentor – sorry, opponent – Erin O'Toole Thursday night, in a blandly passive English-language leaders' debate."
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-trudeau-otoole-prevented-from-launching-attacks-at-each-other-in/ (Globe and Mail, Sept 9, 2021)

"The debate format did not allow for in-depth discussion."
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-58495746 (BBC, Sept 10, 2021)

The farce of Canada's televised federal leaders' debate is an insult to viewers and voters
"But the so-called federal leaders' debate on Thursday evening took the cake. What happened across multiple Canadian TV channels was the worst of the worst, an example of utter failure in Canadian television, and a disgraceful insult to the intelligence of viewers and voters.
That was not a debate, it was a farce. The fact that the political leaders even agreed to participate in the format is an indictment of their collective intelligence."
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/article-farce-of-a-televised-election-debate-an-insult-to-viewers-and-voters/ (Globe and Mail – Sept 10, 2021)

Leaders spar over climate, foreign policy in debate, but format leaves some unhappy
"The format of the debate may have left many viewers unsatisfied.
The five leaders frequently talked over one another. Leaders on the receiving end of accusations or loaded questions from rivals were often given no chance to respond."
https://www.msn.com/en-ca/news/other/leaders-gearing-up-for-english-language-debate-tonight-after-french-joust/ar-AAOfHMR (Canadian Press - Sept 10, 2021)

Leaders' debates commission under fire after controversial English debate
"The two-hour fractious debate has been roundly condemned for giving leaders too little time to explain their policies or rebut attacks from rivals, and giving too much time to moderator Shachi Kurl and journalist questioners to interrupt."
https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/federal-election-2021/leaders-debates-commission-under-fire-after-controversial-english-debate-1.5581264 (Canadian Press, September 10, 2021)

"The format of the debate was stifling and harried. Like the French-language debate the night before, it was conducted at the pace of a lightning round. Trudeau at times seemed to be hurrying to get as many words in as possible before he was cut off."
https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/analysis-debate-english-language-1.6170302 (CBC, Sept 10, 2021)

Five takeaways from the federal election debate, a disjointed but feisty showdown
"Much of the pre-debate chatter reasoned that a tightly structured format—a rotating cast of questioners, the switches between open debate and two- or three-person jousting sessions, and the citizen questions—would limit any particular leader's ability to shine. In actuality, the moderators' dogged fidelity to their structure and timeline squeezed most of the light out of this affair.
Lead moderator Shachi Kurl, a pollster and former journalist, rapidly cut off many attempts to pivot from one topic to the next, and hawkishly watched the clock to ensure all of the myriad elements of the program had their slotted times. It led to a moment that some observers believe will raise anger in Quebec, and potentially draw votes to the Bloc: Kurl wound up arguing with Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc Québecois leader, who claimed he'd been shorted when it came to timing…
At another point, Kurl offered Trudeau an absurdly paltry five seconds to respond to various critiques of his record. Some past debates have gone wildly off topic or off-kilter and would have benefited from a moderator with a tighter leash. Kurl's leash often seemed like a choke chain, stifling many exchanges from blossoming into actual, you know, debates." 
https://www.macleans.ca/politics/federal-election-debate-five-takeaways-from-a-disjointed-but-feisty-showdown/ (Macleans, Sept 10, 2021)

Canada's official leaders' debates a farce
"How a gaggle of presumably media-savvy people organizing these debates have not yet figured out that you can't have 10-people participating in a two-hour debate — five political leaders, four journalists and a moderator — without the whole thing turning into a giant fustercluck, is hard to comprehend…
"The key to these leaders' debates working is to have one competent moderator who is in charge of the format and the only one asking questions…
But the real problem with the Debate Broadcast Group — as its name implies — is that the television networks carrying it want their own media representative featured prominently on the show asking questions of the political leaders, which inevitably turns it into a train wreck…
If the Debate Broadcast Group can't agree on a single moderator for the official French and English language debates (the French one was the better of the two but not as good as the TVA debate) it should be disbanded."
https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/goldstein-canadas-official-leaders-debates-a-farce (September 10, 2021)

Canadians deserved better than just one lousy debate
"The reason to have a leaders' debate – or, oh to dream, more than one debate – is not to provide a platform for the host. It's not about giving the networks airtime to promote their anchors. It's not about providing five "average person" lottery winners a chance to "have their say." It's not one more opportunity to tick racial and gender boxes for all of the above. And it isn't a place for journalists to interrogate politicians – that's a press conference, something each of the leaders does, regularly. The point of a leaders' debate is for the leaders to debate. That's it. That's all. That's everything…
Yet Thursday night's debate – this election's only one in English – was designed to prevent debate from breaking out. Why? Beats us. Journalists read questions that were longer than the time given to the leaders' answers, and leaders who wanted to debate with one another were quickly shut down by the moderator.
Canadians deserve better. Our parliamentary democracy, bequeathed to us by the hard fights of our history, and which people around the world dream of living under, deserves better. And yes, our political leaders deserve better.
The official consortium cooked up a format designed to foster cynicism about politics and politicians, making a group of five leaders – all smart, educated, experienced and in command of their briefs – look dumb and empty, like cardboard cut-outs of who they actually are.
As for Thursday night's fiasco, there was no sense that the producers understood that there was anything special about the stage or the moment. There was no wonder or reverence for the process or its product, the twin marvels of representative democracy and responsible government. It might as well have been another episode of The Great Canadian Baking Show."
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-canadians-deserved-better-than-just-one-lousy-debate/ (Globe and Mail – Sept 11, 2021, The Editorial Board)

There was criticism in the English- and French-language press on the role of the moderator in the English debate and one question posed in this debate, which garnered national attention.

Legault wants apology for 'unacceptable' federal debate question on Quebec laws
"That was an attack on the Quebec nation, Legault told reporters in Quebec City, adding that Kurl and the group of broadcasters that organized the debate need to apologize."
https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/federal-election-2021/legault-wants-apology-for-unacceptable-federal-debate-question-on-quebec-laws-1.558114 (Canadian Press – Sept 10, 2021)

Trudeau, O'Toole call debate question on Quebec's secularism offensive, unfair
"As a Quebecer, I found that question really offensive." –Trudeau
https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-debate-blanchet-bill21-1.6171124
(CBC – Sept 10, 2021)

Leaders were stifled by debate format and moderator's shrill discipline
"The first thing that must be said about Thursday night's leaders' debate is that the format stunk. There was no provision for real debate among the five party leaders and no time to delve into the five issues."
https://www.chroniclejournal.com/opinion/leaders-were-stifled-by-debate-format-and-moderator-s-shrill-discipline/article_344bd626-13d2-11ec-b95a-bf23471a2903.html (Chronicle Journal Sept 12, 2021)

Justin Trudeau gets 'mugged by four thugs' in a ghastly English election debate
"It was ghastly, an embarrassment, an insult to the intelligence of Canadians, and a disservice to voters who hoped to learn something useful about the five leaders and the issues in next Monday's election.
What they got was a poorly conceived debate, stupidly structured, badly organized, and ineptly directed by a moderator who behaved as though she was a sixth debater instead of a neutral referee."
https://www.thespec.com/opinion/contributors/2021/09/12/justin-trudeau-gets-mugged-by-four-thugs-in-a-ghastly-english-election-debate.html (Hamilton Spectator – Sept 12, 2021)

Opinion: Ill-advised, ill-informed question could shake up election in Quebec
"Reading most of English Canada's press this past weekend, one would not have guessed that a controversy had erupted in Quebec after the party leaders' English debate Thursday night, a controversy so huge and emotional that it could change the election results in the province and, therefore, the composition of the next Parliament."
https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-ill-advised-ill-informed-question-could-shake-up-election-in-quebec/wcm/b929255d-53ef-4a4c-b65c-952705bc3208/amp/
(Montreal Gazette – Sept 13, 2021)

Quebec legislature unanimously condemns 'Quebec bashing' at federal leaders' debate
"The Liberal motion said the first question asked to Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet by debate moderator Shachi Kurl likened Quebec to a racist and discriminatory society."
https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/quebec-legislature-unanimously-condemns-quebec-bashing-at-federal-leaders-debate-1.5585609
(Canadian Press – Sept 14, 2021)

The debate about the debate that could swing the election
"The 2021 campaign may go down as the first to see a debate moderator's question become a ballot-box inflection point… Kurl's question ignited outrage among Quebec's political and pundit class."
https://www.politico.com/newsletters/ottawa-playbook/2021/09/15/the-debate-about-the-debate-that-could-swing-the-election-494327 (Politico – Sept 15, 2021)

Trudeau, O'Toole, Singh call for apology over Bill 21 English debate question
"All three major party leaders are calling for an apology from the consortium of media broadcasters involved in the federal leaders' debates over a question about Quebec laws during the recent English-language debate.
The question, posed by moderator Shachi Kurl to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet during the Sept. 9 debate, has set off a firestorm of criticism in Quebec, including a unanimous call from the provincial National Assembly for a formal apology for the "hostile" views expressed against "the Quebec nation."
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-trudeau-otoole-singh-call-for-apology-over-bill-21-english-debate/
(Globe and Mail- Sept 15, 2021)

Controversial question in English debate may have galvanized Bloc voters
"The exchange had the effect of reviving an old wound, leaving Quebecers feeling disrespected and misunderstood by the rest of Canada, according to several experts interviewed by CBC.
It created a situation in which a debate that is typically almost ignored in Quebec may have changed the game for the federal election on the ground."
https://www.cbc.ca/amp/1.6176663 (CBC – Sept 16, 2021)

Opinion: Shachi Kurl's precarious and astonishing debate question was twisted and insipid
"It was a twisted, insipid question, full of dubious amalgams, inaccuracies and imprecision."
https://beta.ctvnews.ca/local/montreal/2021/9/17/1_5589973.html
(CTV News - Sept 17, 2021)

How an 'unacceptable' debate question about Quebec could change the election outcome
"A question posed to Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet during the English-language debate last week may have changed the trajectory of the election in Quebec."
https://montreal.citynews.ca/2021/09/18/unacceptable-debate-question-quebec-election-outcome/
(CityNews – Sept 18, 2021)

The French-language media provided more coverage as it related to the question posed and the role of the moderator.

Débat des chefs en anglais | «La modératrice est censée modérer les échanges, pas sortir le lance-flamme!»
https://www.985fm.ca/nouvelles/politique/422920/debat-des-chefs-en-anglais-la-moderatrice-est-censee-moderer-les-echanges-pas-sortir-le-lance-flamme
(98.5 FM – Sept 10, 2021)

Québec « déçu du manque de neutralité »
« C'est Ian Lafrenière qui a résumé le point de vue gouvernemental. « Ma réaction, c'est de dire que c'est extrêmement décevant. Je pensais qu'on était rendu ailleurs en 2021. Quand je suis sorti de ce débat, honnêtement, j'étais vraiment très déçu, déçu qu'on était encore rendu là dans ce genre de phrase et le manque de neutralité. Alors déçu », a-t-il affirmé. »
https://www.lapresse.ca/elections-federales/2021-09-10/debat-des-chefs-en-anglais/quebec-decu-du-manque-de-neutralite.php
(La Presse, Sept 10, 2021)

Débat des chefs en anglais: des flammèches entre les chefs... et la modératrice
« Les flammèches ont volé au Musée canadien de l'histoire, à Gatineau, dès les premières minutes de la joute oratoire. »
https://www.msn.com/fr-ca/actualites/other/d%C3%A9bat-des-chefs-en-anglais-un-dernier-affrontement-avant-le-sprint-final/ar-AAOh5nL?li=AAanjZr
(Presse Canadienne – Sept 10, 2021)

Question controversée au débat des chefs : «ça frise le caractère haineux»
« Ça démontre une bonne dose d'ignorance, beaucoup de mépris et ça frise le caractère haineux. Pourquoi? Parce que ce n'était pas seulement une question. Il y avait une affirmation sur le caractère raciste au départ», déclare Stéphane Bédard à La Joute… 
«Je pense qu'on est tous tombés sur le cul, lance-t-il. Je pense que c'est une question inacceptable. Il y a un amalgame de plein de choses là-dedans qui n'ont pas trop rapport les uns avec les autres. »
https://www.tvanouvelles.ca/2021/09/10/question-controversee-au-debat-des-chefs--ca-frise-le-caractere-haineux
(TVA Nouvelles – Sept 10, 2021)

L'étincelle
« D'entrée de jeu, plusieurs se demandaient pour quelle raison on avait confié ce rôle à la présidente d'Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, qui avait plutôt les allures d'une militante, alors que les médias du Canada anglais ne manquent pas de journalistes chevronnés. »
https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/chroniques/631494/chronique-l-etincelle
(Le Devoir, Sept 11, 2021)

Le Mépris
« Ce n'est généralement pas une bonne idée pour la modératrice d'un débat des chefs de manifester un parti pris envers l'un ou l'autre des politiciens qu'elle est chargée d'interroger. Or, la première question qu'a posée Shachi Kurl à Yves-François Blanchet lors du débat en anglais de jeudi soir a choqué beaucoup de Québécois, même parmi ceux qui s'opposent à la loi 21 et au projet de loi 96.
Je suis convaincu que Mme Kurl était de bonne foi et ne cherchait pas à semer la polémique. Mais en qualifiant d'emblée ces deux mesures de « discriminatoires », elle a fait preuve d'un manque flagrant de neutralité. »
https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/chroniques/631428/chronique-le-mepris
 (Le Devoir – Sept 11, 2021)

Accusé Blanchet, levez-vous !
« La première question au chef du Bloc québécois lancée par la modératrice n'était pas une question.
C'était un acte d'accusation. »
https://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/chroniques/2021-09-11/accuse-blanchet-levez-vous.php
(La Presse, Sept 16, 2021)

La question bancale et saugrenue de Shachi Kurl
« Il s'agissait d'une question tordue, insipide, truffée d'amalgames douteux, d'inexactitudes et d'imprécisions. »
https://www.lapresse.ca/debats/opinions/2021-09-16/debat-des-chefs-en-anglais/la-question-bancale-et-saugrenue-de-shachi-kurl.php
(La Presse, Sept 16, 2021)

More Debates
There were several news articles in the English-language press, which criticized and noted that one English-language debate was not enough.
Canada's sorry excuse for election debates fail us all
"This campaign season, French-speaking voters will have three chances to witness the major parties' leaders face off against one another… However, English-speaking voters will only have one such occasion — a government-mandated debate on September 9. In a country with two official languages, it seems only right they'd have an equal number of debates, particularly considering 75 per cent of the nation lists English as their first official language. And, to be clear, in a healthy democracy, that number should total more than one.
One debate isn't nearly enough to address the wide range of issues at play, now more so than ever. There could be an entire debate centred around COVID-19 response and recovery, another on the economy, and yet another on social issues.
In 2015, there were three unofficial English-language debates. Despite the formation of the Leaders' Debates Commission in 2018 with the supposed goal of promoting more and better debates, they only held one in 2019 and it was widely panned for being heavy on personal attacks and light on actual substance.
The Commission is officially charged with creating a minimum of one debate in each language, and it seems they're content to scrape by with the bare minimum. Some point to the reluctance of traditional broadcasters to give up primetime slots, but it is a private broadcaster, TVA, that is hosting the extra French debate. And in today's digital age there's no shortage of options for airing such events. Leaders may even find they (gasp!) reach new demographics this way.
It was Justin Trudeau's Liberals who created the commission and gave it this paltry mandate, and it's also Trudeau who seems the key barrier to holding more English-language debates
I hope some debate organizer has the gumption to place a cardboard cutout of the Liberal leader behind a podium. We like to play nice in Canada, but organizations shouldn't hesitate to draw attention to an incumbent who roadblocks democratic progress. In a five-week campaign, particularly one where in-person events are limited, there should be multiple opportunities to really get to know the candidates beyond their own campaign safety bubbles."
https://nationalpost.com/opinion/sabrina-maddeaux-canadas-sorry-excuse-for-election-debates-fail-us-all
(National Post – Sept 2, 2021)

Three leaders' debates — two of which are in French — simply aren't enough
"But the fact that there is a second French-language leader's debate is important to note, because there is only one English-language leaders' debate (which will take place this coming Thursday, Sept. 9). That's not to say we should only have an even number of leaders' debates in an election campaign, but it doesn't seem right that there should be twice as many in one official language… Between those two snubs and the fact that the Leaders' Debate Commission has a mandate for only a bare minimum of two debates, it tells us a lot about how much Trudeau values these debates."
https://globalnews.ca/news/8164357/canada-election-leaders-debate/
(Global News – September 4, 2021)

Two debates for Quebec. One for the other 30 million of us
"For this clutter of secondary provinces and outlying territories, there is one debate. One.
The people who set up these debates are under the illusion that Canada is a very small country and every place outside Quebec is a carbon copy of every other place. Hence, their careful rationing of debates.
However, everybody else in Canada knows the truth is the opposite. Canada is very large, regions and provinces wildly different from each other, and all parts of Canada have their own issues of national importance…
One debate for almost 30 million people, nine provinces and three territories. It is to laugh."
https://nationalpost.com/opinion/rex-murphy-two-debates-for-quebec-one-for-the-other-30-million-of-us
(National Post - Sept 8, 2021 – Rex Murphy- opinion)

Canadians deserved better than just one lousy debate
"Can the next Parliament please fix this state of affairs? Canadians deserve more debates, longer debates and far better debates – debates that are actual debates."
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-canadians-deserved-better-than-just-one-lousy-debate/
(Globe and Mail – Sept 11, 2021 editorial board)

Role of the Commission
Criticism centered on the role exercised by the debates producer and the Commission's responsibility as it relates to its mandate.

Between the leaders debates
"For starters, the participating news organizations want maximum on-screen time for their journalists. Every organization that participated in the consortium sent a prominent colleague. None preferred to sit the night out, for the sake of simplicity and clarity. That's how you get five people in moderator/interrogator roles. And if La Presse's Paul Journet wasn't all that interested in pressing leaders on their non-answers to questions from Hélène Buzzetti of the newspaper syndicate Les Coops de l'Info… well, that brings us to the parties' interest.
The parties want minimum on-screen time for their leaders.
The consortium debates' oligarchy isn't the product of a mandate from heaven, only from Ottawa. And it doesn't improve the product. One day, people will figure that out."
https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/between-the-leaders-debates/
(Macleans - Sept 9, 2021)

Leaders' debates commission under fire after controversial English debate
The Leaders' Debates Commission was created to put an end to machinations by the big political parties to control how, when, what and who leaders would debate during federal election campaigns.
But after Thursday's controversial English-language debate, some critics are calling for an end to the independent commission or at least an overhaul of its mandate…
The TV networks had also been criticized for caring more about putting on a good show than helping to inform voters.
The debates commission, headed by former governor general David Johnston, was meant to rectify all that.
But it gave most of the responsibility for producing the debates to network consortiums. For the English debate, the consortium included CBC News, CTV News, APTN News and Global News.
"They (the commission) seem to have accepted the advice of whoever is producing the thing to turn it into a TV show," Alboim said in an interview.
"Not to understand that you've created a format where people can lob accusations in mid-air and get no response or no rebuttal is a dereliction of duty," Alboim said.
It meant Trudeau, who was the primary target of those attacks, was left playing the role of "pin cushion."
"They would each do a drive-by smear and then move on to something else and he wouldn't get a chance to respond so, of course, he suffered from the format."
https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/federal-election-2021/leaders-debates-commission-under-fire-after-controversial-english-debate-1.5581264
(Canadian Press - September 10, 2021)

Our election debates have become embarrassing failures. How did we sink so low?
"The blame for the embarrassing debate failures this year is widely shared. The networks push their journalists to become stars of the show, and several played almost partisan and celebrity-seeking roles. The moderator had great difficulty with her role, displaying the exasperation of a newbie teacher attempting to corral a careening group of sugar-high kids.
The newly minted Leaders' Debates Commission was created to address previous criticisms…
The commission said they had considered two debates in each language, but were concerned that might "dilute" the viewership. What specious nonsense. Every insider knows why they folded on that essential question: the networks are still really in charge, and they do not want to give up the airtime.
It is indeed ironic that some of the most iconic debates of decades past were moderated with great professionalism by the commission chair David Johnston. He and the other commissioners might want to have a viewing of those past debates together, and then consider whether the flashy game shows they have created are an improvement…
If the networks are not happy with those parameters, show them the door. There are many universities and citizens' organizations perfectly capable of staging serious, professional political debates. Parliament should grant a new commission an annual budget to fund the debates themselves, granting those groups asked to host sufficient funds to produce an intelligent, informative program.
The Leaders' Debates Commission is part of the problem."
https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2021/09/12/our-election-debates-have-become-embarrassing-failures-how-did-we-sink-so-low.html
(Toronto Star – Sept 12, 2021)

La Commission aux débats a failli à sa tâche
« Si la Commission était au départ inutile, elle est devenue cette année réellement problématique. Le débat du consortium en anglais a donné lieu à une scène abracadabrante. L'animatrice prend position, donne son opinion biaisée sur des lois de l'Assemblée nationale du Québec. »
https://www.journaldemontreal.com/2021/09/25/la-commission-aux-debats-a-failli-a-sa-tache
(Journal de Montréal, Sept 25, 2021)

Appendix 5 – Participation criteria for the Leaders' Debates

Appendix 6 – International lessons learned

1. The number and model of debates per election cycle

Main takeaway: All the countries analyzed organize several debates during their respective election cycles and all have two different types of debates during their respective election cycles. Debates with all candidates and debates with only the frontrunners.

USA: It holds four debates. One vice presidential debate and three presidential debates, after the primary debates.

France: The country has a two-round system to elect its next president. It held three debates in 2017. For the first time in its history, France held debates prior to its first round. The two debates prior to the start of the official campaign featured the top five candidates and the other had seven of the 11 candidates running in the presidential race. The second round debate featured the two frontrunners.

Germany: It held four debates in 2021. For the first time since 2002, the country's four television broadcasters (two public and two private) did not hold a joint television a head-to-head debate ("Das Duell") in the 2021 federal election. Instead, there were three three-way debates ("Das Triell") organized and broadcast by the various networks organized (a first in German history) and a final debate with all seven parties in the German parliament, which ran three days before the election (a tradition dating back to the 1970s).

The four broadcasters had previously pulled together over the 16 years that Angela Merkel was Chancellor of Germany. Each had one of their journalists on stage to represent their respective networks when Merkel debated her various challengers over the years.

With Merkel's departure from the political stage, there were all new candidates running for Chancellor and all three were said to be keen to debate. This led to the "Triell," a program of three debates which featured the three main candidates.

UK: It held at least five national debates in 2019, two head-to-head debates with the frontrunners likely to become prime minister and at least three debates with the main candidates or leading figures of all the parties.

The first head-to-head took place at the beginning of the campaign and the second was held six days before the election. The other debates were scheduled closely together towards the middle of the campaign. The UK is also a country, which offers a package of election coverage. This includes one-on-one interviews, town halls and debates.

2. The format. A simple format.

Main takeaway: The experiences of international stakeholders point to a simple format as a fitting approach to serve the public interest.

Stakeholders consulted suggested a "menu" in debate format that is deemed to be in the public interest. It consists of the following three elements:

  1. Same questions to all candidates
  2. A follow-up question to make sure the candidate responds
  3. Discussion from all candidates so there is an interaction

They suggested that flexibility on time and not being authoritative on time as being the model emerging internationally. They advised to avoid complexity in format, as it requires great mental energy.

USA: Their format has six 15-minute blocks, two minutes to answer and equality of time.

France: The format was simple in both debates that took place before the first round in 2017. The five-candidate debate lasted three hours and had three themes with opening and closing statements (1 min 30 seconds for each candidate). It was a newly imagined format with a modern but simple look and feel. The candidates were standing up in a circle with the two moderators standing in the same circle as well but slightly retreated from the candidate. There was an audience behind each candidate.

There was a draw for the opening and closing statements only, not for the questions under each theme. At the start of each theme, a candidate was asked a specific question and had two minutes to answer. After 1 min 30 seconds each candidates could interrupt. It was then an open debate with each of the following questions. Candidates did not have to answer each question. It is up to each candidate whether to answer a question.

The two moderators were there to facilitate dialogue and exchanges. There were clocks in the background, which showed the accumulated time of each candidate. When one candidate was running lower on time, the moderator would remind of the time and provide the candidate with the opportunity to interject so to make up the time. This was infrequent and not a constant reminder.

France's goal with the five-candidate debate prior to the first round was to be useful to people in terms of learning about the leaders' positions. It provided equality of time to all candidates, even though some parties were smaller. France goes deeper into themes, more so than any other country analyzed.

The seven-candidate debate had a similar structure: four hours, four themes, one-minute opening statement from each leader and one-minute closing statement from each leader.

Germany:

Again, a simple format based on final equality of time in the "Das Triell". There were opening and closing statements, a draw on who would speak first. The candidates knew beforehand how long they had to answer questions. No answer should be longer than one minute. They showed the time to the candidates three times in the show at 15, 30 and 75-minute mark in 90-minute debate. There were no clocks on the set. The two moderators shared the questions, followed-up and had an open debate. The goal was for each candidate to engage in debate. There was very little cross talk as all the three candidates had agreed to be fair with each other.

UK:

Again, a simple format in 2019. There was an audience and it was audience-led debates. The audience generated the questions. The role of the moderator was to follow-up, ensure that the audience's questions were answered; everyone has a fair hearing, and "not to cross-reference the leaders." The moderators would intervene only slightly to avoid people talking over each other and move the debate on.

There was a one-minute opening statement to camera from each candidate, which was the result of the draw. Each question from the audience member was directed to each candidate. It was then an open, free flowing debate. The goal was to have a lively debate, an exchange of views between politicians. There was also a one-minute closing statement established by draw. The debates with all the parties on stage (five and seven candidates) had about eight questions (topics) from the audience. The debates with the two frontrunners had less.

Providing properly illuminating political debate while testing the politicians is an important factor to stakeholders in the UK. Allowing for an opening statement is seen as creating a level playing field where everyone gets their minute to camera, where everyone is allowed to settle and everything is equal before leaders engage in debate. Live debates are deemed high wire acts and uniquely pressurized. Watching the body language of the leaders, how they cope in this high stakes environment, are considered important components to the debates.

Equality of time for each candidate was one of the principles of the negotiations with the parties for the head to head and with the larger debate with five-seven candidates; equality was also the focus no matter the size of the party.

Stakeholders argue that a simple format works better. They say a debate has to be engaging television but in short, it remains a simple proposition. The aim is to give the candidates the space, time and opportunity to get to grips with policy.

The UK's goal is to allow for proper debate on big issues of the day. It is not necessarily an either or in terms of having less themes or going deeper into them. It is about having the flexibility to understand when you are getting proper runway on an issue and allowing the moment to breathe. Carefully plotting out the themes is key and allowing for the number of themes/questions to maybe whittle down a bit to create the space for emerging debate.

3. Moderation and the moderator

Main takeaway: International stakeholders say that moderation and the moderator are the key ingredients to the debate's success. As such, they select them very carefully.

USA: Stakeholders contend that having one moderator on stage is the pattern that emerges over time because one individual can use time most efficiently and more easily follow up with questions.

The factors recognized to select a moderator include familiarity with the candidates, live television and news experience as well as an understanding that the role is to facilitate debate between the candidates.

France:

Two networks were organizing the debates prior to the first round so each had a representative on stage. The second round debate also featured two moderators. Stakeholders say the moderators selected for the debates need to understand that they are not the stars. They are there to serve and work for the public so that they have the tools to decide on voting day. The French pick team players and not those who want to be in the spotlight. Moderators must know how to step aside and let the candidates take center stage. It is not about their ego. In France, having two moderators on stage works well. The two of them write the questions together but they know they do not own the questions. In a live debate setting, they know that questions might change from one to the other depending on how the debate is unfolding. They are there to facilitate dialogue rather than engage in interview.

Germany:

Debates there featured two moderators in the recent federal election. German news reported an unevenness this time in the joint "Triell" debate organized by the two national public broadcasters. A highly experienced political journalist who had moderated all the debates since 2002 had been paired with a newly appointed editor-in-chief making his debut as a debate moderator. This is where it was reported that the debate fell down as the less experienced and nervous moderator interrupted unnecessarily, asked long-winded questions, which confused the candidates. The two moderators also interrupted each other. All the major German newspapers wrote about this dynamic. The headlines were: "Why Triell's moderation was so miserable," "The duel of the journalists" and "Why the presenters on "Triell" didn't shine much."

A German stakeholder consulted admitted that this was a lessons learnt from the debate, saying that they could have worked more closer together with meetings every other day with boundaries more clearly defined, meaning one moderator asking one question and the other asking another. He added that there were not the same number of staff on both teams.

UK:

A single person moderates debates in the UK - an experienced journalist that knows that it is not about him/her. One stakeholder said that the number one most important thing as moderator is that you are there as a facilitator, you are there for the audience. This is not a career moment for you. Another stakeholder said that when picked to moderate the debate, the network made it clear to the individual they should not become the story; the debate is about the leaders and a competent debate was wanted.

Stakeholders say a moderator should be a journalist with gravitas and charm with hours of live television experience, who knows the subject, has the respect and trust of the leaders, who can control time, listen to what is being said, and has the ability to firmly but politely close down a discussion and move the debate on. The role of the moderator should facilitate the debate, clarify the positions and hold the leaders to account. More than one moderator does not serve the audience there, as the public needs to know who is in charge and feel confident that they are being taken on a journey.

Stakeholders also added that it is important to have intellectual depth, be known by the leaders and have the ability and confidence to correct a sitting leader and challenge them on their policies. A moderator also injects some light and shade, some moments of levity, and has the flexibility to adjust when more or less time is needed on a specific theme/question when the debate gets going.

The goal of the moderator is to get the debate flowing and elicit the exchanges between the leaders. It is about well-honed questions that spark passionate debate and get the most out of the answer. Questions are about striking that balance. The role of the moderator is not park journalistic instincts to follow up and interrogate, but rather to tailor them to the format, becoming a different role focused on illuminating the differences between the candidates. Stakeholders say that having a little bit of rebuttal material is important but not too much because a debate is not a substantial interrogation of their position. The best approach stakeholders say is to think what is someone shouting at the television right now and that is the question that needs to be asked when following up.

Appendix 7 – Workshop on Debates Production

The Leaders' Debates Commission held a workshop with experts within the Canadian broadcasting industry. Below is a summary of their inputs.

  • The LDC is the only party at the debate table that has no self-interest; all of the other players are self-interested, the LDC should lean into that fact and responsibility
  • Many of the decisions made in the early days of the consortium served strategy and did not serve the public interest. The LDC can (and should) challenge those "sacred cows"
  • The greatest "value add" of the Commission is that it has created inevitability and predictability around participation
  • LDC provides distance on delicate issues (especially participation criteria)
  • The executive producers should have more contact with the Commission
  • Moderator: one single moderator would be best, but the consortium will not be able to decide on that, it will take leadership from the LDC
  • Consider a simplified format:
    • Less focus on time; it can be fair rather than equal
    • Fewer themes
    • Questions from one single moderator
    • Eliminate the draw: decisions about placement on stage, order of questions, face-to-face should be made from an editorial perspective
  • No consensus on the idea of more time for leaders most likely to be PM
  • Number of debates: parties and networks are unlikely to agree to more than two debates
  • The CBC/Radio-Canada may be the only one of the main networks who can produce this alone

Appendix 8 – Workshop on Participation Criteria

The Leaders' Debates Commission held a workshop with experts within the polling industry. Below is a summary of their inputs.

  • Consensus that the criteria used in 2021 were correct, but they should have been applied later in the process
  • LDC should not narrow the window for eligible polls (to ensure maximum number of polls to be included) but should move the window forward, closer to the debates
  • Consensus that the window should have been during the writ period, no pre-writ-drop polls should be included
  • Window should be based on debate date, not election date
  • Strong consensus that the criteria should not be written into statute; it's too difficult to imagine a one-size-fits-all solution
  • While there is not consensus on using median vs. mean, the majority of experts at the workshop preferred the simple approach of using the mean
  • The majority believed  4% is the right number
  • Bifurcation for leaders most likely to form government:
    • If we have some kind of bifurcation, it might change the questions asked.  With the PM on the stage, you ask questions about what are you going to do as you form government
    • Feedback that it wouldn't allow for natural change in political landscape (i.e. 2015)
    • Overall, no strong consensus on this, but the majority (although not all) attendees feel that there should be a way to bifurcate around leaders most likely to be PM vs others, whether that be more than two debates, or within the two debates
    • Would need a set of criteria for each set of debates. The criteria for the big debate could potentially be more generous
    • Need to consider who would be official opposition in French debate
  • There was support for more than two debates (by some, but not all attendees) but no consensus on whether or not that is possible. Reasons given for why that may not be possible:
    • Campaign is short in Canada
    • Parties won't agree, networks won't distribute (but maybe two of the four could be digital distribution only?)
    • Suggestion that the LDC should not shy away from making the suggestion or just organizing more debates, if the parties don't want to come, then they can decline

Appendix 9 – Workshop on the Future of Debates in Canada

The Leaders' Debates Commission held a workshop on the future of debates in Canada with academics and experts in governance and broadcasting. Below is a summary of their inputs.

  • Broad support for a continued mandate for the LDC.
  • The establishment of the LDC has in particular made important contributions to the predictability and stability of debates – not only by ensuring that they occur but also through its efforts to provide transparency around leader participation and its efforts on reach, translation, and accessibility.
  • The LDC has taken the politics out of the question, "will there be a debate or not?"
  • The LDC needs to ensure it is an advocate for, and defender of, debates that are in the public interest.
  • Elections are becoming increasing micro-targeted and composed of controlled conversations. The value of debates and an institution that champions them is to provide events that allow for broad engagement of Canadians.
  • It is a critical time to address what was described as an era of potential democratic backsliding around the world.
  • The production of debates is necessarily an exercise in compromise. LDC can provide value by ensuring the focus remains on the public while considering these compromises.
  • The LDC has been successful in ensuring that political parties don't dictate debate format, but have been less successful in ensuring media organizations don't dictate format.
  • Debates needs to be about the party leaders, not the people who organize the debate.
  • Strong consensus on the importance of simplicity in format and moderation.
  • Building knowledge of parties and their positions is a key indicator of success, and research indicates that this was not fulfilled as fully in 2021 as it could have been. The 2021 debates were still a learning event but simplification of format would improve learning of parties positions, allow for new information to emerge and enable leadership choices.
  • The high number of questions in the 2021 debate likely put pressure on both moderators and leaders. The 2021 English-language debate included 45 questions, compared to eight questions in the 2008 English consortium debate and six in the 2011 consortium debate.
  • The tension between allowing for learning about parties most likely to win seats in Parliament and learning about those leaders most likely to become Prime Minister might be solved by having more than one debate in each language, or by having unequal time for leaders within one debate. The idea of treating leaders differently within a debate by allocating them different amounts of time, however, may be problematic.
  • Consensus on overall equal time in terms of fairness.
  • The LDC should be prepared to advocate for more debates. Two debates in each language in particular seems to align with findings from the public opinion research and provide more opportunities to learn about parties and about likely Prime Ministers. It could be the LDC that delivers additional debates, or other organizers with LDC encouragement.
  • Democracy is about conversation and confrontation of ideas, and well-functioning debates make important contributions in these areas. They need to be fair and informative for people & leaders.

Appendix 10 – Canadian Election Study – Evaluation of the 2021 leaders' debates

See separate page.

Appendix 11 – Accessibility and Distribution

While the 2021 debates viewership numbers are still high - almost as many people watched the debate as voted in 2021 – the numbers are not as high as in 2019. There are a number of possible factors. First, the 2021 federal election was not held on a fixed election date, it was a "snap election." According to Nanos Research, three-quarters of Canadians felt the 2021 election was "unnecessary."Footnote 1 Second, the debates producer – the Debate Broadcast Group (DBG) - indicated that the decline in viewership numbers is in line with a general downward trend in television ratings. And, finally, the 2021 voter turnout suggests that Canadians may have been less engaged than they were in 2019. Voter turnout was 67% in 2019 and 62.5% in 2021.

Still, the debates reached a large number of Canadians in a variety of different languages and formats. They were available on television, radio, social media (Facebook, Twitter), third party platforms (YouTube), over-the-top (OTT) digital platforms, apps as well as dozens of other websites.

The next few tables show a breakdown of who watched the debates, where and how.

Debate viewership

The total of 10,273,926 for the English debate includes radio listeners (513,000), digital viewers (2,337,928) and TV viewers (7,423,000). As such, it is possible that the 10,273,926 could include some people who watched on more than one device at the same time. For television the total of 7,423,000 is the total number of viewers over the 120-minute duration. The average minute audience (AMA) was 2,638,000.

The total of 4,282,628 for the French debate includes radio listeners (20,425), digital viewers (900,203) and TV viewers (3,362,000). As such, it is possible that the 4,282,628 could include some people who watched on more than one device at the same time. For television the total of 3,362,000 is the total number of viewers over the 120-minute duration. The average minute audience (AMA) was 1,247,000.

TV vs Radio vs Digital

 

Digital viewership

 


Date modified: May 10, 2022