Stephen Harper has pledged to refrain from participating in the two debates hosted by Canada’s largest broadcasters—CBC, Global, CTV, and Radio-Canada. Outrage directed towards Harper and his Conservatives accuses him of deliberately preventing Canadians from seeing him debate. This is the Liberal party line. In the words of Liberal spokesman Olivier Duschesneau, “it seems the Conservatives once again, do not want the broadest number of Canadians to hear from Mr. Harper.” It’s curious, that spin, isn’t it? That Harper’s afraid to debate Trudeau?
Oddly enough for a man who refuses to debate, Harper has committed to five debates, with Maclean’s, Munk Debates, The Globe and Mail/Google Canada, TVA, and one more French language debate still undecided. The NDP has also committed to all of them (NDP Leader Tom Mulcair will debate Stephen Harper anytime, anywhere). It should be good fun to see Harper and Mulcair battle it out over and over again. The Liberals are invited too, of course, but Trudeau doesn’t seem keen on accepting the invitation. He’s asking for all kinds of extra requirements, including live “audience participation” and an equal number of English and French debates.
A few months ago, in what was considered to be a devious move, the Conservatives asked the Consortium for extra debates. Conservative sources said, “I believe the more Canadians see the prime minister on the same stage as Justin Trudeau the better it is for us” and “Let’s face it, the prime minister is less likely to slip up.” The Liberal response? A strategist said that “the true motive is to keep Trudeau off the campaign trail.” It’s worth noting that, in the discussions with the Conservatives, the Consortium offered four debates, but, once the Conservatives refused, the Liberals, NDP, Greens, and Bloc agreed to only two.
If Harper appears in the Consortium debates, Trudeau will not participate in any of the others. That’s undesirable to the Conservatives, who believe that the more Trudeau has to speak about policy, the more he’ll contradict himself and inevitably offend someone (see: C-51 and Pipelines). If Harper and Mulcair take the show to the Globe & Mail, Trudeau will essentially be obligated to participate at the risk of never debating Harper before the election. Conveniently, the Consortium debates take place after all the other ones.
Here the strategy comes together: Harper goads Trudeau into participating in the Maclean’s and Globe & Mail debate. Afterwards, Harper can attend the Consortium debate, getting what he wants all along: more debates. Further still, he can continue to boycott the Consortium and hopefully kill it, allowing for looser and more interesting formats that don’t revolve around 30-second sound bites (for example, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, guaranteed to never be repeated so long as politicians win only through muddling the truth and huddling near the centre).
Alternatively, all of this has been dramatically orchestrated to prevent Harper from debating Trudeau due to fear of “being exposed” or “facing his record.” I’ll be tuning into every debate, and I have a feeling that a Harper/Mulcair one-on-one will be more interesting than everyone lining up in a CBC studio for “audience participation.” I hope Trudeau comes out to as many debates as he can. He’s not scared of being exposed, right?
ERRATUM (5/28/2015): It has been pointed out to the True North Times that one of the five debates Harper will attend is being hosted by Munk Debates, not Munk School of Business. Munk Debates is a separate entity from the Munk School of Global Affairs.