For debate: Trudeau creates commission to oversee leaders’ debates

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Photo: Le Studio/Flickr

The Trudeau government is fulfilling an election promise to create an impartial body to oversee and organize leaders’ debates during the next election campaign -- sort of.

What the Liberals did not promise is that they would undertake this reform unilaterally, without consulting the opposition parties.

Nor did they tell Canadians this new entity would only organize one debate in each official language. There could still be other debates, organized by anyone who wants to give it a try.

The new body is to be called the Leaders’ Debates Commission and the government has chosen former governor general David Johnston to head it. Johnston will work with a seven-member advisory council. One of his first tasks will be to select the members of that council.

The commission is supposed to “enter into a contract for the production of the debates” and provide the broadcast feed free of charge. It is charged with working with political parties to negotiate terms and with media to guarantee distribution. The government wants the commission to do its best to assure the debates are available to the largest number of Canadians possible.

There’s a bit of history to that.

Last time many Canadians had no access to the debates

In 2015, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to participate in debates organized, as they had been for decades, by a consortium of the country’s largest broadcasters. Instead, he agreed to take part in an improvised series of debates, organized by a self-selected group, which included Maclean’s magazine and the Munk Centre in Toronto.

The debates were not, for the most part, broadcast nationally. In fact, a number of them were primarily available only online. None were available in all parts of the country on over-the-air (as opposed to cable) television.

Millions of Canadians were either unaware of the debates, which did not benefit from pre-publicity on any of the major networks; or, lacking computers, Internet connections or cable, had no access to them. One of Johnston’s important roles will be to assure such a situation does not recur in the next federal election campaign in 2019 – at least for the one debate in each language he will oversee.

The government has provided some basic ground rules for the debates, which the commission must respect. Notably, it has set the criteria for political parties’ participation.

To participate, parties must meet two of three conditions: They must have at least one member of Parliament. They must have also won at least four per cent of the popular vote in the last election. They must intend to run candidates in a minimum of 90 per cent of the ridings in the next election.

Those criteria mean the Green Party will be in. It did not quite get four per cent of the vote last time, but it does have one MP (its leader, Elizabeth May) and it will run candidates in at least 90 per cent of the ridings next time.

The Bloc Québécois is also in. It only runs candidates in Quebec, far from the 90-per-cent threshold, but it won more than six per cent of the vote last time and has four MPs.

Maxime Bernier’s new party did not exist last time, so it earned zero votes. But it does have one MP, its founder and leader, and Bernier has said he will run candidates in all ridings next time. If that is true, he, too, will be on the podium.

The Liberals took their time to implement this particular election promise. And they appear to consider the new commission to be, at best, a one-time-only, stop-gap measure.

One of Johnston’s key tasks will be to report to Parliament following the next election, in order to provide “lessons learned.” More important, in the government’s words, Johnston is to make “recommendations to inform the potential creation in statute of a ‘built to last’ Debates Commission.”

In other words, the current commission is not necessarily “built to last.”

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Le Studio/Flickr


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