A New Experiment for an Old Media Political Event: Leaders’ Debates in Canada

Andre Turcotte

More than 60 years ago, Australian voters witnessed something new during an election campaign: the leaders of the main political parties debated issues on this new invention called television. While Australia was first, it was a similar event two years later that really captured peoples imagination. On the evening of 26 September 1960, two men squared off in the first of four televised debates during the American presidential election campaign. It was previously suggested that “as John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon argued the main issues of the day, few at the time knew they were witnessing the creation of what would become a permanent fixture in modern electioneering” (Turcotte, 2016, p. 253).The impact was not felt right away. In fact, the practice did not establish itself for a couple ot decades but once it was, there was no turning back.

Canada followed a similar pattern.The first federal leaders’ debate was held on 9 June 1968 but the debates did not become a regular occurrence until the 1984 election. Since then, while political parties and the media tinkered with the format, and bickered about the process, it was generally accepted that staged, televised debates were unavoidable. However, in recent years, there has been growing dissatisfaction with leaders’ debates in Canada and around the world. Most critics argue that there are too many participants; the format stifles substantive issues and voters are losing interest. Alter the 2015 Federal Election, the Canadian Government set up an Independent Commission to look at the future of the leaders’ debates. This chapter examines the proposed changes and isolates what impact, if any, they had on voters. As part of this effort, I present findings of a quantitative study conducted during the 2019 Canadian Federal Election campaign and offer the latest impressions about this old but important media political event in Canada. Before going any further, I review the theoretical discussion about the impact ot debates and offer a short overview of the history of leaders’ debates in Canada.

Theoretical Discussion

Leaders’ debates have received considerable academic attention and have been studied from different viewpoints. One such viewpoint is from the political communication and media studies tradition. Scholarly works by Alan Schroder (2008), Newton N. Minnow and Craig L. Lamay (2008) as well as Wring, Mortimore and Atkinson (2011) fall within that tradition. According to this approach, the debates are communication tools and media events that provide a glimpse at the “behind-the-scenes” of politics. Such works investigate the components of the mechanics ot staging leaders’ debates. These analyses examine the impact of the whole process starting with predebates negotiations and preparations, followed by the debates themselves and, arguably, the more important dimension, the post-media coverage and the efforts deployed to influence and shape the post debate communication efforts.

Other scholars have examined leaders’ debates from their role in the democratic process.They focus on the potential roles of debates in contributing to a more informed electorate. Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1988) is one ot the key scholars in this subfield of analysis and concludes that presidential debates, for better or worse, remain the best available vehicle to inform the electorate (as well as Benoit, 2015). Similarly, Owen (1991) as well as Lanoue and Schrott (1991) suggest that presidential debates represent the best available option for voters to compare and contrast candidates’ positions and personal styles and become better informed about their vote choice. As we see later in this chapter, the knowledge dissemination function ot the debates was one ot the key discussion points of the Independent Commission and the survey instrument focused on that aspect.

Televised election debates have also been analysed from a comparative perspective (Coleman, 2000). Accordingly, we have studies looking at debates in Australia, Canada, Israel, Great Britain, and New Zealand among others. Of course, this current volume adds to this body of work. Another line of enquiry looks at the impact ot debates on campaign dynamics. Typically, such works try to isolate the impact of the debates on the electoral outcome while others look at patterns across several elections. Specifically, debates are examined for their impact on vote choice. This can be accomplished from two perspectives. First, we can see whether and to what extent support for political parties changes after a televised debate takes place. In this vein, voters who watched the debates—or have seen media coverage of the debates—are asked which leader did best and/or worse, or more specifically, who won and lost, and how this impacts their vote choice. As previously suggested:

The general consensus about the aggregate impact of debates is that there is a tendency tor the apparently victorious debater to experience some degree of surge in public support following the debate. However, it would appear that much of this increase tends to disappear within a tew days.

Turcotte, 2016, p. 256

That initial effect can at times be hard to discern. For instance, in the 2010 British election, the electorate witnessed three debates. While there was general agreement that Liberal Party leader Nick Clegg was the clear winner of the debates, the Liberal vote “was up by only 1 percent, and the party actually lost six seats compared to the previous election” (Bruckweh, 2011, p. v). Nevertheless, as Holbrook (1996, p. 114) concluded, “generally speaking, the winning debater stands to make a modest gain in the polls” and debates have at least the potential to persuade voters.

Second, academics have attempted to isolate the attitudinal impact of debates. Instead ot a narrow focus on vote, this approach examines perceptions of leaders; voters’ evaluation ot performance; and impact on key leadership attributes. The assumption is that attitudinal change will have an indirect impact on vote choice. Isolating such an indirect impact has proven to be difficult. Another difficulty lies in the fact that the evaluation of “who won the debate” is deeply embedded in voter’s party identification and political predispositions.

Thus, the general consensus emerging from the comparative literature suggests that debates have some but limited impact on the electoral outcome itself. Their impacts are felt at different levels. More than anything, the electorate tends to tune in to watch and therefore the debates have both a mobilisation impact on the voters, and parties devote significant resources to ensure a successful performance on that stage. But it remains the case that this impact is limited both in scope and in time. Similar conclusions can be drawn with regards to the Canadian context.

Debates in Canadian Federal Elections

Prime Minister Stephen Harper created some consternation when he announced that he would not participate in the leaders’ debates during the 2015 federal election. At first, most saw this as one ot the usual tactics used by political parties in their negotiations with the media consortium responsible tor staging the event. But to the surprise of many, Harper did skip the consortium- led English debate. While unusual in the current political environment, this is only the latest in a series of turbulent episodes in the history of debates in Canada.

The first leaders’ debate in Canada was held during the 1968 federal election.There was only one such event—following a bilingual (English and French) format—held on 25 June 1968 which lasted for two hours. But it was an inauspicious beginning. After agreeing to participate in 1968 alongside Robert Stanfield and Tommy Douglas (with Real Caouette, leader of the Social Credit Party being invited tor 45 minutes), Pierre Elliott Trudeau refused to take part in 1972 and 1974. Then, with his support and chances of reelection plummeting, Trudeau agreed to debate his comparatively inexperienced Progressive Conservative Party (PC) adversary, Joe Clark, and the new Democratic Party (NDP) leader, Ed Broadbent, in the 1979 election. Most observers agreed that Trudeau “won” that debate but still lost the election. Maybe for that reason,Trudeau decided once again not to square oft against his opponents in 1980.

The 1984 debates between Brian Mulroney and John Turner created such high drama that it secured the format as a permanent fixture in Canadian politics. By 1988, it was assumed that the party leaders would each participate in one English and one French debate organised through a consortium of major Canadian TV broadcasters. However, changes in the political landscape led to a decline in appeal. In 1993, five party leaders took part in the debates and the discussion quickly became an unwieldy shouting match. The same circumstances prevailed in 1997 and 2000 with the same disappointing results. With fewer and new participants in 2004, there were some hope that the leaders’ debates would regain some of their appeal but by then, leaders were so scripted that there was little room left for drama.

Despite the turmoil and negativity, the debates are important at least in part because the leaders themselves attach a lot of importance to these events (Attallah, 2004, p. 275). Moreover, some seminal Canadian studies have indicated that they can have an impact on voters’ perceptions of the leaders. For example, the 1988 National Election Study isolated an important shift in public attitudes in favor ot Turner following his debate performance (Johnston, 1992, pp. 180—91). Others have suggested that debates “may have a particularly important [...] influence on public opinion when several of the leaders are new faces as in 1993” (LeDuc, 1994, p. 131) because voters develop lasting “first impressions” as a result of debate performance. In the same vein, some studies have indicated that the debates can have an impact on the important perception ot which leaders would “make the best Prime Minister” (LeDuc, 1994,p. 137). However, there are some indications that whatever effects can be isolated, they tend to dissipate by election day.

Several explanations have been offered to explain the apparent disconnect between debate performance and electoral outcomes in Canada. First, the Canadian “first-past-the vote” electoral system means that voters do not vote directly for the party leaders. This does not suggest that leaders are not important factors in vote choice but they compete with other variables such as party loyalties, local candidates, socioeconomic status, regional divisions and issues. Second, the debates are purposely held early during the campaign period to allow for leaders to recover from any potential negative performance. Third, as LeDuc suggested: “the possible direct effects of the debate are somewhat diluted by the fact that viewers are also more likely to watch other political programs over the course of the campaign” (LeDuc, 1994) Therefore, the initial impact on attitudes can possibly be changed by the secondary coverage and analysis of the debates. Party strategists have become adept at removing uncertainty through careful planning and preparations. There were some indications that voters became wise to the choreography of debate performance and were losing interest in the format. Plummeting TV ratings frustrated the media consortium which resented having to cede valuable airtime for an event that Canadians seemed to care little about. Harper’s decision to skip the consortium-led English debate led to a new approach in the 2015 federal election.

There was a total of five debates in the 2015 election, and a vast array of media partners— extending beyond television stations—got involved in the process. The first debate was sponsored by Maclean’s magazine and aired on Rogers TV stations, CPAC (a not-for-profit TV network) and Facebook, which was just beginning to provide live programming.This was followed by a debate sponsored by a national newspaper—the Globe and Mail—and focused upon the economy. This debate was restricted to the leaders of the three main parties, Steven Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. This was followed by a French Media consortium debate in which all five party leaders participated.There was also a university-sponsored Munk debate on foreign policy. Finally, the five leaders squared off for the last time in a French debate sponsored by the Quebec broadcaster TVA.

If the goal of having more debates was to create renewed interest in this format and to provide more exposure to the party' leaders, the experiment tailed on both counts. As shown in the Table 2.1, only the first debate garnered more than a million viewers—with an average of 1.5 million Canadians tuning in. This was much lower than the previous three debates which had average audiences of three million viewers.

Needless to say, all stakeholders had reasons to be disgruntled by the outcome of the 2015 experience. Leaders received less exposure than ever; media partners got disappointing audiences

Table 2.1 Audience ratings 2006—2015



9 January 2006


2 October 2008


12 April 2011


6 August 2015 Maclean s


17 September 2015 Globe and Mail


24 September 2015 French Media Consortium


28 September 2015 Munk Debate


2 October 2015 TVA


Source. Numeris—Average Minute Audience and the voters were left contused by too many debates to choose from and formats that tailed to capture their attention.The newly elected Trudeau government set up a commission to improve the situation.

The Creation of an Independent Commissioner Responsible for Leaders’ Debates in Canada

In the aftermath of the 2015 federal election, faculty members from the School of Journalism and Communication and the Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University organised a colloquium—held on 15 December 2015 at the university—in collaboration with the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) to discuss the future of leaders’ debates in Canada. The participants included representatives from all main political parties, executives from the media consortium, academics, and graduate students. Following the colloquium, the three organising partners—IRPP, the School of Journalism and Communication and the Riddell Graduate Program—wrote a report which was published in March 2016. The report made a series of recommendations (IRPP, March 2016, pp. 5—6):

  • 1. Debates need to be held in a format that is meaningful and accessible;
  • 2. Clear rules tor determining who is invited to participate in debates need to be available to and understandable by voters;
  • 3. There should be a mandatory minimum of two debates (one in each language) during the minimum 36-day election period;
  • 4. To be invited, parties must:

a. Have elected MPs in the House ot Commons;

b. Intend to run candidates in all or nearly all constituencies;

c. Have a chance of winning seats (as evidenced by polling history and previous results);

d. Have a presence in daily political conversation;

e. Have a fully developed platform;

f. Consider the language proficiency of each leader tor debates in that language;

g. Have an identified party' leader.

While the colloquium did not solve all the issues, it sparked a conversation which contributed to the introduction of a new set of rules and regulations through the work of a parliamentary committee.The committee spelled out what it perceived to be the role ot party leaders’ debates in Canada, specifically to (see House ot Commons Report 8510-412-357):

  • • Help the public understand their choices;
  • • Educate and cultivate citizenship;
  • • Provide meaningful public engagement and deliberation;
  • • Provide unmediated access to party leaders;
  • • Let citizens understand party' policies;
  • • Help judge the character of leaders;
  • • Allow for a comparison and evaluation of ideas and performance ot party leaders; and
  • • Provide information.

To ensure that leaders’ debates would fulfill their functions, the Committee made a total ot 12 recommendations. While the details are beyond the scope of this chapter, the crux of the recommendations was to establish a new entity to organise leaders’ debates and to create the position of an autonomous Federal Part)' Leaders’ Debates Commissioner. The Commissioner is mandated to develop criteria for participation in the debates and ensure that high journalistic standards are upheld in the organisation and broadcasting to the debates. A minimum of at least one debate in each official language is to be held during the general election campaign period. The first Debates Commissioner is former Governor-General David Johnston. The remainder of this chapter examines the extent to which the changes have contributed toward improving the function of the leaders’ debates.


To meet the stated objectives, I conducted two separate studies about the federal leaders’ debates. The first study was completed on 3 and 4 September 2019, a week before the start of the election campaign. A total of 1,000 online interviews were conducted with adult Canadians eligible to vote in the federal election. The aim of this first phase was to gather data about Canadians’ general interests, impressions and attitudes toward leader’s debates. A second study was conducted immediately after the two consortium-led (and Debate Commission sanctioned) debates held on 7 October (English) and 10 October (French) 2019. Once more, a total of 1,000 online interviews were conducted between 8 and 15 October 2019 with adult Canadians eligible to vote. This second wave was designed to isolate potential effects of the new approach proposed by the Commission.

Canadians and the Debates

The rules guiding the two official 2019 leaders’ debates were simple but created a certain level of confusion. First, the rules of eligibility meant that six leaders participated in each event— more than any other previous debates despite the goal to streamline participation. Moreover, the English debate was moderated by five different media personalities while the French debate was led by four moderators. Each debate lasted two hours and covered five topics with very strict time limits for answers.To isolate the potential impact of the changes proposed by the Debates Commission, 1 examined voters’ attitudes toward the areas of improvement identified by the Commission. As discussed above, the objectives were to improve how the leaders’ debates fulfill the following key functions to:

  • • Educate and help the public understand their choices by providing information;
  • • Provide meaningful public engagement and deliberation;
  • • Help voters evaluate the party leaders; and
  • • Let citizens understand party policies.

While some of those objectives are difficult to quantify, the findings from the two waves of the study provide evidence that some of the goals were met and more work remains to be done on some other aspects.

At the onset of the campaign and despite the recommendation that only two debates be held during the election campaign, some media organisations tried to replicate the more diffuse situation from the previous election. As was the case in 2015, Maclean’s magazine held its own debate early in the campaign. However, unlike in 2015 when the average audience was a respectable 1.5 million viewers, the average audience dropped to only 373,000 in 2019. This was in large part because Prime Minister Trudeau decided not to participate in this particular event.

Shortly after, the organisers of the Munk debates—also held in 2015—announced that they would not go ahead with their plans to hold a separate debate on foreign affairs. Accordingly, the first identifiable impact ot the Debates Commission was to reduce the number of debates and provide Canadian voters with fewer but clear media events which they could tune into and learn about the party leaders and the major issues of the election. And tune in they did.

The first ot the two Commission-sponsored debates was held on 7 October 2019 and garnered an average per minute audience of 3,983,000 Canadians. Three days later, the French debate took place to an average per minute audience of 1,630,000 Canadians.These were significantly higher than in 2015 and even higher than in elections going back to 2006. While several factors contributed to this increase in viewership—interest in a close race for instance—it suggests that having two clearly identified events for the voters and them being held later than usual in the campaign, were important factors.The Commission may have succeeded in helping the leaders’ debates fulfill their general mobilisation function. But what of the substance of the debates as proposed by the Commission?

Educate and Help the Public Understand their Choices by Providing Information

One important priority emerging out of the work ot the Debates Commission was to use the debates as a way to have an educated electorate which feels better positioned to base vote decision on information. In this sense, debates are important since only a few Canadian voters (21%) mention that they watch “no coverage at all” of the leaders’ debates during an election campaign and 58% watch some, if not all, ot the televised event.This is further substantiated by the significant audience ratings discussed previously. Moreover, before the election campaign began, close to half of Canadians (48%) either strongly agreed (11%) or somewhat agreed (37%) that the debates are “essential in deciding how to vote”.

This sentiment dropped to 40% (10% strongly agree and 30% somewhat agree) in the after- math of the 2019 debates, suggesting that the events were somewhat disappointing. Interestingly, there was a sharp contrast between the evaluation of the English and the French debates. While 36% of English Canadians strongly agreed (6%) or somewhat agreed (30%) that the debate was “essential in deciding how to vote”, this rose to 58% (26% who strongly agreed and 32% somewhat agreed) for the French debate. As the literature points out, isolating the actual impact ot the debates on vote choice is difficult. Nevertheless, 12% of English Canadian voters and 29% of their French counterparts felt that the debates had an impact on their vote choice.

Provide Meaningful Public Engagement and Deliberation

Meaningful is a difficult concept to quantify but the data suggests that overall, the 2019 debates measured up well on that metric. More than half (53%) felt that the debates were entertaining to watch. While 50% expressed that the debates were hard to follow, few (18%) felt that they were “over their head”. Less than half of Canadians (43%) felt it was boring, biased (43%) or a waste of time (42%) with no significant differences between the English and the French debates. Close to halt agreed (46%) that the events “provide a great way to get a glimpse ot the behind- the-scenes of politics”.

While the data suggest a generally positive evaluation ot the format of the 2019 debates, the political and media participants did not perform as well. Some 84% of Canadians were frustrated that “the leaders don’t give straight answers” and three quarters (75%) felt that the debates were “badly moderated ”. When asked for advice on how to improve this event, 72% felt that leaders should be “forced to answer the questions”. Moreover, only 35% of Canadians saw the debates as a way to “stay engaged in politics”.

Help Voters Evaluate the Party Leaders

Despite their frustration about the leaders’ inabilities to give straight answers, Canadians value the opportunity to evaluate party leaders through the debates. In general terms, a majority of Canadians (53%) rely on debates to learn about the leaders; this is slightly higher than those who say that they rely on debates to learn about policies (51%). Specifically, it seems to be a way to see how leaders behave rather than what they believe in. Almost three-quarters (72%) agreed that these televised events are a “great way to see the leaders’ in action”.There are some meaningful differences along linguistic lines. While 70% of English Canadians agreed with this statement, 81% of French Canadians shared the same view. We also identified some differences between perceptions of the importance of the debates in helping with leaders’ evaluations and how the political participants performed their duties.

In the aftermath of the debates, only 2% of Canadians felt that party leaders exceeded expectations while a further 40% thought their expectations were met. More than two-in-five (42%) believed that leaders simply did not meet expectations and a further 16% thought it “a disaster”. In light of these findings, it is fair to suggest that in 2019, the party leaders tailed to rise to the opportunity provided by the debates to show who they are and what kind of leadership they would provide if elected. But it seemed to be the result of their performance rather than of the format of the debates.

Let Citizens Understand Party Policies

When asked to identify three specific things they are hoping to learn when they watch a leaders’ debate, half (50%) mentioned “which leader comes closest to me on issues”, while another 47% said “learn about the platforms” and a further 32% wanted “to learn what are the important issues”.1 In the same vein, 76% agreed that in general terms, debates are “a great way to learn about policy differences between parties”. On that particular dimension, the 2019 debates did not disappoint. Almost two thirds (63%) of Canadian voters felt that the debates indeed were a “great way to learn about policy differences”. Once more, French Canadians were more likely to feel that way (77%) than their English equivalents (60%).

The study conducted for this chapter yields other interesting findings. In the first wave of the study, one third (33%) of Canadians stated that they relied on the debates to make their final vote choice. While not the most important factor, this type of event held only on two nights over a campaign lasting at least 36 days plays a significant role in the overall calculus of vote choice. Also of note, voters have a very specific recommendation to improve this event: three quarters (74%) simply want to see the format become stricter so that leaders will not speak over one another. In the end, while only 5% of Canadians admitted that they changed their mind as a result of watching the 2019 leaders’ debates, a majority (50%) felt that the debates were worthwhile and 76% felt that, as a result of the experience, they knew enough to guide their vote choice.


It has been more than 50 years since the first televised leaders’ debate was held in Canada. Despite this long history, scholars, practitioners, media people, and party leaders remain puzzled about the usefulness of this event.

The literature is also divided. Most scholars suggest that the debates are effective communication tools and important media events that provide a glimpse at the “behind-the-scenes” of politics. Generally, the debates do contribute—in varying degrees—to a more informed electorate and, for better or worse, represent the best available vehicle to inform the electorate. Their impact on vote choice is not as obvious. If there is a consensus in the literature, it points to a potential short-term impact— positive or negative—on both leaders’ evaluation and vote choice. But party strategists are well-aware ot the short-term nature of the impact and have learned to schedule the timing of leaders’ debates well ahead of the vote to allow for that potential impact to disappear.

In Canada, there was such discontent in the aftermath of the 2015 experience with leaders’ debates that the then newly elected Trudeau government included in the mandate letter to the minister responsible for democratic reform to address the issue. Moreover, the dismally low audience numbers further convinced the major stakeholders—from political parties, broadcasters, and government officials— to begin a discussion about the future ot this campaign event. That the impetus for change was largely driven by the fact that TV audiences were low reminds us that in the end, leaders’ debates have both political communication and democratic functions and should be evaluated as such.

In line with this assertion, what can be said about leaders’ debates in Canada? The 2019 experience was a welcomed reset. It TV audience is an indication ot preference, Canadians want fewer debates. They will tune in to one or two events and use the opportunity to learn about the leaders, try to understand policy differences and end up generally better informed as a result. Whether debates have a lasting impact on party preference remains an open question. However, one of the main contributions of this 2019 Canadian experiment may have been to recognise that leaders’ debates are democratic tools. Given their importance, scheduling the debates at a time when voters’ interest was heightened made a difterence.This simple change may have been the most decisive contribution ot the experiment. It removed the impact ot the debates out ot the control of party strategists and put it back in the hands of the electorate.


1 The questions allowed for three mentions and therefore total mentions exceed 100%.


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