Thank you very much.
Thank you for offering us a chance to speak with you today. We are a collection of broadcast networks with a large and pivotal role to play in making Canadian democracy function. In coming here today, we share the same objective as this committee—to find the most effective way of providing voters with the tools they need to make thoughtful, informed choices and to engage Canadians, ultimately, in the democratic process. That's especially true for Canada's public broadcaster, but it applies to each and every one of us. Not only do we bring programs to people in every nook and cranny of this country but we have direct experience with every manner of election coverage, including leaders' debates.
Our experience with federal election debates goes back to the very first one in 1968. At that time, CBC/Radio-Canada and CTV started with a blank slate, negotiating the terms with the parties. The arguments over inclusion were not so different from what you hear now. That first debate was split into two sections. Part one had the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats. Part two added the Créditistes. The Social Credit Party was excluded altogether.
Over the years, more broadcasters signed up while political parties came and went. We added debates in French, and have always experimented with format, from round tables to live audiences to social media. Each campaign, lessons and productions evolved.
Certain themes pop up every time. My colleagues and I will discuss the most important today, and we urge you to give them considered attention.
One, we need debates that have the potential to reach each and every Canadian. Again, the shared objective here is public service. How do we improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions? Debates help achieve that by testing candidates for their knowledge, their values, and the nimbleness of their thinking under pressure. We benefit most when the leaders offer depth beyond their prepared messages. Don't underestimate the importance of reaching a vast audience. In this modern world of fractured discourse, this is a rare chance for Canadians to assess candidates in the same time, in the same place, and in the same context. The impact of a debate increases exponentially when they are part of a shared national experience.
Two, we need debates that people will actually watch. Reaching an audience doesn't do much good if people don't engage. You need to have a format that works, a set that looks good, lighting, and a moderator with skill. You need to push and challenge the candidates to stay on topic and relevant to the issues of the day. That's one reason broadcast journalists bring so much value to these debates. Of course, you need producers who understand what it takes to keep eyeballs on the screen, not just television screens but the digital and social spaces too. In that context, I'm sure you know that CBC News is not only a television and radio broadcaster but also a digital leader in Canada, reaching 18.3 million unique visits. In big moments, though, as I think all of us will echo, nothing matches the power and draw of television when it's done properly.
Three, we need to redefine the parties' role in the process. I recognize that's risky—you're all affiliated with political parties—but bear with me. It's our assessment that the biggest flaw in the current system is that the parties are able to use their leverage to direct the debate process. Although it became fashionable in 2015 to attack the major broadcast networks, the truth is that we have never controlled the terms of the debates. They have been the product of a delicate negotiating dance with the political parties themselves. Each party pushes for every edge it can get, from where and when the debate takes place to who can take part to what format is acceptable. They threaten to withhold their participation as they seek terms to give them advantage.
In 2015 the networks acted in good faith but were strung along for months, until we were pushed right off the stage, at least in the English debates. In this the public was not well served. A fraction of Canadians were reached when you compare the audience numbers with those of 2011. If we accomplish nothing else here, it should be to depoliticize the process, put the public interest out front, and ensure that partisan interests are kept in check.
My colleague Michel Cormier of Radio-Canada will explain how this played out in the 2015 campaign.