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The Debate about the Debates


[Ottawa – June 3, 2015] The debates are the most viewed event of any campaign. While there are mixed views about the actually efficacy of the debates in shaping electoral outcomes, there is no question that they are the pivotal spectacle of the campaign. Our new polling confirms the salience of the debates as a resource for presenting the leaders and their platforms to voters in the later stages of the campaign.

Claimed deficiencies in the traditional debate model have been raised as a basis for calling for new formats and media outreach. Stephen Harper has gone so far as to say he categorically will not participate in the traditional debates hosted by the major television media players. Along with some of the other parties, the government has agreed to some new debate models, putatively to increase access and innovation.


Whatever the real motivations, the net effect of this is to deny Elizabeth May a place in these new debates (mostly) and to leave the parties of the center and left to debate amongst themselves while Mr. Harper mimics the famous empty chair at the last Republican Presidential convention. This decision does not rest well with voters who see the traditional debates as a very important basis for voter choice and a healthy democratic process. While being deeply skeptical about the motives of the Prime Minister, and any parties that don’t think that all of the leaders should be present for all of the debates, the public overwhelmingly think the traditional debate should proceed, with or without Mr. Harper.

The poll also brings into question the apparent assumption that the traditional approach had outlived its usefulness. But do the voters actually agree with this assumption? The answer may be surprising to those following this debate about debates.


The public think the traditional debates provide a critical resource to voters and they express broad satisfaction with that approach. Fully 62 per cent are satisfied and only 10 per cent are dissatisfied. Even Conservative supporters are satisfied, albeit in a more tepid manner than other party supporters. NDP and Liberal supporters show almost no dissatisfaction, although satisfaction was lower among Conservative supporters and (ironically perhaps) Green Party supporters.

More specific probing on perceived motivations and what to do produces a similarly damning picture of Mr. Harper’s decision to take a pass on the consortium debate. They overwhelmingly say that if Mr. Harper wants to take his ball and go home, that should not interfere with the debates proceeding. This result is not to be viewed as “permission”, but rather frustrated resignation. Almost all respondents think that all of the leaders should attend all of the debate – period.


The public also believe that political parties are jockeying for political advantage and that open and fair democracy is being compromised. The strong lean to favouring and independent oversight commission also reinforces the public’s skepticism about the apparent rationale for these decisions. Almost no one buys the Conservative Party’s claim that this will be more open and innovative; most think it is just another illustration of party self-interest eclipsing the public interest. Interestingly, the importance of these debates ranked highest among younger voters, which brings into question the idea that this is little more than a tired anachronism. Certainly the networks are well versed in the use of parallel social media methods to complement the traditional mainstream methods.

As for Elizabeth May’s attendance in any and all leadership debates, the public are quite clear. By a huge margin, they want her to be at the debates.


Even more simply, the public think the rules guiding this should be simple and clear – all party leaders should participate in all debates. This is a point of virtual consensus with only tiny minorities of most party supporters disagreeing. Even within the Conservative ranks, this simple guideline is overwhelmingly embraced.


Finally, it seems that a large majority of voters would like to see a special debate about climate change and the environment. Our earlier research shows these issues to be the orphaned issue so far and the public would like this redressed – with one notable exception: Conservative supporters are actually opposed to this by a two-to-one margin, wildly out of step with everyone else.


In short, the public like the traditional debate format and would be loath to see it scuttled. They are deeply skeptical about the claims that this would somehow enhance democracy; in fact they see it having the opposite effect. The public are open to innovation as well as the traditional approach. The conditions for this are quite straightforward – all leaders at all debates. Finally, the voters are finding stated claims about high democratic motives risibly disingenuous. For any parties thinking of sacrificing the traditional debates on the altar of political self-interest, they may wish to heed these results and the likely corrosive consequences for their parties proceeding on that path.


This study was conducted using EKOS’ unique, hybrid online/telephone research panel, Probit. Our panel offers exhaustive coverage of the Canadian population (i.e., Internet, phone, cell phone), random recruitment (in other words, participants are recruited randomly, they do not opt themselves into our panel), and equal probability sampling. All respondents to our panel are recruited by telephone using random digit dialling and are confirmed by live interviewers. Unlike opt-in online panels, Probit supports margin of error estimates. We believe this to be the only probability-based online panel in Canada.

This study involved an online only survey of 937 Canadians. While panellists are randomly recruited, the survey itself excludes the roughly 1 in 8 Canadians without internet access. The results should therefore be considered generalizeable to Canada’s online population. The field dates for this survey are May 29-June 1, 2015. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/-3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and educational attainment to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to Census data.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (June 3, 2015)

12 comments to The Debate about the Debates

  • Erik Swanson

    The Conservatives have always been uncomfortable with open debate. Why should this be any different? Most voters see right through this and it is going to cost him dearly. Big mistake!

  • Kevin Aubie

    Under stephen harper Canada is headed for a totalitarian state
    He is our biggest threat, not terrorists

  • Elizabeth May Green Party Should Be Involved In All Debates

    Standing Up For All Canadians For what Is Truth

    And Justice Of The Highest Order ! The People Are The Gov. In There Own Right ….We All Need To Have A Look At The Unchanged Constitution
    We were born FREE
    We Have Been Used For Money Since We Took Our First Breath Starting With Out Birth Certificate

  • Diana Mitchell

    No debate, about leadership debates…all Party leaders should be required to be in all the debates. That our Prime Minister does not agree, nor does the Conservative Party as a whole, is neither here nor there. You want to be a voice for the citizens, then show up at the debates, speak your version of what the Party stands for, stay and give a listen to the other speakers, and don’t leave till the party’s over. Period.

  • kevin abrahams

    LIZ IN THE DEBATES WILL IS THE ONLY SANE RESPECTFUL THING TO DO/ no one can commonly rationalise why she should not be in the debate

  • Elizabeth Conway

    Ms. May must be included in the debates. Then 3 Leaders have the opportunity to show the Canadian public how strong or not their arguments for being the next PM. Because, Harper has to go.He’s ruining our country.

  • Tracy Allard

    End all debate panels. They are useless. People need to read all the party platforms and vote based on the real values of the parties.
    Electing politicians based on their ability to argue with each other is absolutely ridiculous.
    What we need is good journalism and good journalists, who will question politicians on how they yes-or-no have lived up NOT to their lying campaign “promises”, but on how they lived up to their party’s platform.

  • Nicholas Fulford

    To not include all party leaders in all debates is an affront to the citizenry. Any leader who declines to debate because another leader will debate is in “contempt of the electorate”. Because you and I are the electorate it is up to us to show Stephen Harper why we are outraged by this affront, and there is one sure way to do that.

  • If the Conservative/Republican or NDPer won’t show, hold the debate anyway — news from a recent special election (we’d call it a byelection) in the state of Delaware, in which the Republican candidate failed to attend any public debate:

    “A second debate sponsored by Delco Debates on Sunday, Aug. 2, will go as planned at Swarthmore Borough Hall at 2 p.m., with or without Mullen.”


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