back to top

How The Conservatives Won The Debates Even Before They Started

Two key showdowns between the parties and the broadcasters helped create an ideal scenario for Harper.

Posted on
Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

It couldn't have worked out much better for Stephen Harper.

The two single-issue debates in this election have been focused on his favourite issues, the economy and foreign policy. They have in turn helped focus the main narratives of the election on ISIS, the niqab and taxes, as opposed to some of Harper's more vulnerable issues, like healthcare and the environment.

And even if something had gone wrong for him at those debates, the ratings were too low to be a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the only English debate to cover a wide range of issues and to be widely broadcast on television took place on August 6 — more than two months before election day.

Major social issues facing Canada, such as legalizing marijuana, new prostitution laws, and whether to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, have barely been discussed at all.

At the same time, debate ratings have plummeted because CTV, CBC and Global, known collectively as "the consortium," refused to air any outside debates.

The debate conventions of past races are out the window. The Conservatives strategy to change the way Canadian election debates operate has played out perfectly.

Conversations with people across all three parties and with several media organizations reveal it's the result of two separate showdowns — one between the Conservatives and the opposition parties, and one between the Conservatives and the consortium.

Both the NDP and the Liberals say they were blindsided this spring when the Conservatives announced they would not take part in the traditional consortium debates.

Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke announced his party wanted to open the debates up to "many credible organizations" instead of the usual three broadcasters.

This left the NDP and Liberals with two choices. They could abandon the consortium as well, or attend the consortium debate anyway and hope the Conservatives would blink. After all, it would look ridiculous for the prime minister of Canada to not attend the marquee debate of an election campaign.

But we'll never know whether the Conservatives would have backed down. The Liberals say they were ready to push back but say the NDP blinked by declaring they would only attend debates where Harper was present.

"They were suckered," said one senior Liberal of the NDP.

Fred Thornhill / Reuters

For their part, the Conservatives shake off the notion that they ran the table on their opponents. "We don't see ourselves as having outplayed anyone," said one senior Conservative official in an email. "Although we do think the PM is doing very well in the debates (and so are others)."

If there ever was any chance of cross-party negotiations, that exploded quickly. After a meeting in May between the Liberals, Greens, NDP and the consortium, a story was leaked to Huffington Post Canada that painted the NDP in a negative light.

A source told reporter Althia Raj that during the closed-door meeting NDP campaign director Anne McGrath had rejected having any debates held at universities. The source called McGrath's statement "shocking" and condemned the NDP for not helping youth get engaged in politics.

The NDP were livid. They denied the story, but beyond that were angered at seeing political leaks from what they thought was an off-the-record meeting. Ottawa insiders call this a ratfuck story. They were convinced the Liberals were behind it. And if the Liberals were more interested in ratfucking than negotiating, the NDP decided, then the talks were over.

With the NDP and Liberals not speaking, the Conservatives had all the leverage they needed. Harper's team could pick and choose which debates to attend with the knowledge that the NDP and Liberals weren't going to gang up on them.

About three-dozen organizations sent in debate pitches (including BuzzFeed Canada). On top of the Maclean's debate, the Conservatives selected a debate on the economy hosted by The Globe And Mail, and one on foreign policy hosted by the Munk Debates.

Both the Liberals and NDP say they would have preferred a mix of smaller debates and at least one by the consortium, but that ship had sailed. The Conservatives got the debates they wanted.

It's worth noting that things played out very differently in French. The NDP point out that the Conservatives did back down there, which is what lead to the French-language consortium debate held last week. (A final French debate hosted by TVA takes place this Friday.)

But what none of the parties could have known for sure was that in an unprecedented three-way race for power, election debates would end up have less impact than ever.

None of the three English debates were picked up by CBC, CTV or Global. The Maclean's debate was run on stations owned by the magazine's parent company Rogers, and all three were aired on CPAC. That's it.

This was despite both the Globe and Munk offering their debates to the consortium for free (Rogers was charging a per-minute fee for the Maclean's debate). The CBC in particular took heat for not picking up the debates, which is arguably a part of the CBC's mandate as public broadcaster. Ostensibly the reason is because the broadcasters were cut out of any and all decision-making.

"The reason we're not taking these debates is because we don't have any editorial control over them," said CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson.

Unofficially, there is speculation that the consortium is sticking together. The theory goes that if they break up and start airing non-consortium debates they'll have no leverage to get back in the driver's seat in future elections.

Christinne Muschi / Reuters

How much of a drop in audience has this caused? It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but the numbers we do have show the decline is significant.

The consortium will tell you that more than 10 million people watched the English debate in 2011. In fact, this number is greatly inflated because it counts everyone who tuned in for even a minute.

In terms of people who were truly watching, ratings agency BBM pegged the audience at 1.3 million for CTV and 1.1 million for CBC, plus 600,000 for Global. That's a grand total of about three million viewers, plus another 750,000 for the consortium debate in French.

Rogers claimed the Maclean's debate was watched by 3.8 million people, but that uses the same inflated metric that turned three million real viewers in 2011 into 10 million. If the drop off is similar, the actual number of Maclean's viewers would be somewhere around one million. And that debate had the largest reach of any this year.

The Globe debate had 450,000 views on YouTube plus whatever it picked up from CPAC, SiriusXM and Hamilton station CHCH.. The Munk debate livestream was watched by 31,000 people. It was also streamed online by CPAC, and broadcast by CPAC and CHCH.

A reasonable guess seems to be that around half as many people watched an English-language leaders' debate in 2015 than in 2011.

The Liberals see this as another win for Harper. Though close to 70% of Canadians consistently say they want change, the Conservatives benefit from vote-splitting between the NDP and Liberals. So the last thing the government wanted, said one Liberal, was a defining moment in a debate that caused millions of viewers to shift to one party.

The NDP are less definitive. They wanted a consortium debate, but say they were also eager to take on Harper on his economic and foreign policy record.

Now that the dust has settled, the big question is what will happen in the next election. The consortium was shut out, but not broken. The Liberals are promising an arms-length commission to set election debates in the future, but unless that happens Canada is probably set for another series of stand-offs the next time the writ drops.

Paul McLeod is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Paul McLeod at paul.mcleod@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.