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Ruffled feathers, power plays: Canada's first TV debate was also a headache

Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield, left, and Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau share a few words at the nationally televised debate held in Ottawa June 9, 1968.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Bregg
May 25, 2015 - 9:31 AM

OTTAWA - The Tories walk away from the election debate negotiations, the Liberals make a set of demands to suit their leader, and the smaller parties balk at being shut out.

That was 1968.

Nearly a half-century after the first televised match-up between Canada's federal party leaders, some of the same positioning and posturing is still part of the story before the debates get underway.

"The representatives of each party are fighting for every milligram of what they consider their due with the single-minded fervour of children dividing a chocolate bar," Globe and Mail reporter Leslie Millin wrote that year.

Back then, Canadian political parties were well aware of the widely watched 1960 debate in the United States between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

When the 1962 election rolled around, Liberal Leader Lester B. Pearson challenged Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to a televised showdown. The chief declined.

CTV, decided to put forward an offer for a 90-minute debate in 1968 — but it only wanted Liberal Leader Pierre Trudeau and Progressive Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield to participate.

The NDP's Tommy Douglas declared the offer "discrimination," and the party vowed to mount a national protest. Trudeau demanded that all parties should be invited and that the debate be bilingual — something that would give him an advantage over the others.

"Mr. Trudeau does not have the courage to meet Mr. Stanfield in a face-to-face debate," Progressive Conservative national chairman Eddie Goodman fumed, as talks appeared to falter.

Finally, CTV and CBC/Radio-Canada got together to put forward a proposal, one that would see Trudeau, Stanfield and Douglas debate for 80 minutes, with Creditiste Leader Real Caouette coming in for the last 40. There was to be simultaneous interpretation.

Social Credit Leader A.B. Patterson was not invited.

Those were also the beginnings of the so-called television consortium and the unusual arrangement of the networks pooling their resources. The deal would sometimes rub other media outlets the wrong way — in 1968, journalists were barred from the Parliament Hill building where the debate was televised.

Fast-forward to 2015, and some of the same tensions have cropped up.

The Liberals are insisting on including all the parties, and want an equal number of French and English debates.

The Green Party and Bloc Quebecois are upset about being excluded from different offers. The newly formed party Forces et Democratie hasn't been invited to any of the major debates.

But this time around there also appears to be a breaking away from the model set in 1968.

An estimated 14 million Canadians watched the debates in 1968, the same number as in 2011 even though the population has risen 12 million and there is one more national TV network.

That's part of the reason given by the Conservatives for walking away from the consortium negotiations and insisting on alternative debates from different hosts. They say Canadians get their political news from different places now.

That's given rise to proposals by Maclean's Magazine, the Globe and Mail/Google Canada, the Munk Debates, and several others. The consortium consisting of CTV, CBC/Radio Canada and Global News announced a partnership with social media companies including Facebook and Instagram.

Will any of them break away from the fairly standard format set back in 1968? It's unclear. But even back then, not everyone was thrilled.

Said Pierre Trudeau that night: "I thought the whole thing was pretty dull...I wouldn't want to impose another one on the Canadian public."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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