With Donald Trump and Joe Biden set to debate for the first time in Cleveland on September 29, we thought we'd take a look at the mess created by the Canadian government when it decided to nationalize election debates ahead of last year's federal election. This guest column comes from Mark Steyn Club member Ellen Comeau, who stood for parliament for the People's Party of Canada, led by Maxime Bernier, last fall. You can take a look at Mark Steyn's 2017 interview with M. Bernier here.
"Government should be a referee, not an active player." -Milton Friedman
I've never found televised political leaders' debates to be particularly useful or informative. The spectacle of politicians jostling for attention, trying to outquip each other with rehearsed juicy soundbites, is not conducive to a thoughtful examination of the issues of the day.
Debates may help some voters make up their minds about who to vote for, but I'm partial to reading up on a party's platform, or better yet taking in long-form interviews that give a better feel for what a party or politician is about.
So when Canada's so-called Minister of Democratic Institutions created the Leaders' Debates Commission in 2018, a new bureaucracy whose purpose was to "ensure debates serve the public interest and are predictable, reliable, and stable," I'll confess that I was somewhat skeptical.
Now in 2020, with last October's election – in which I was the People's Party of Canada candidate in Longueuil–St-Hubert – behind us, it's apparent the commission was not useful and did not enhance democracy in Canada.
There was an obvious conflict inherent in the organization's creation in that a government-appointed commissioner – appointed without consultation of opposition parties – was the gatekeeper for who gets to debate and how. In its postmortem report, entitled "Democracy Matters, Debates Count: A report on the 2019 Leaders' Debates Commission and the future of debates in Canada," the Leaders' Debates Commission recommended it be corrected in the future.
Because, of course – surprise, surprise! – the principal recommendation of the commission was the establishment of a permanent Leaders' Debates Commission.
The criteria for the participation of political party leaders in the debates were not established by the commission, but by the Liberal government, who created the commission not through Parliament, but through an order-in-council, the Canadian equivalent of an executive order. The Commission's role was merely to interpret and apply the criteria. This, too, was the subject of criticism.
Especially in a country like Canada, with multiple political parties – some with regional focuses – not to mention my upstart People's Party.
From the report:
1. The Government of the day is ill-placed to set participation criteria for leaders' debates, given the perception of a conflict of interest caused by the Prime Minister's future participation in the debates; and
2. The criteria as written introduced a high degree of ambiguity, which detracted from the certainty that a Commission was intended to provide to debate organization.
What were the criteria established by the Liberal government? Strangely enough, they seemed specifically designed to retroactively allow the current parties in Parliament to participate:
Criterion (i): the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party;
Criterion (ii): the Commissioner considers that the party intends to endorse candidates in at least 90% of electoral districts in the general election in question;
Criterion (iii): a. the party's candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least 4% of the number of valid votes cast; or,
b. based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results, the Commissioner considers that candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question.
It's logical that the number of candidates you have should be the determining factor, as not all parties should automatically get to participate in a leaders' debate. While I am somewhat sympathetic, as a Christian, to the Christian Heritage Party, they only fielded 51 candidates in the last election. The Rhino Party has no business there either having ran only 40 candidates in the 2019 election (though one must admit they couldn't make the debates much worse, and they might actually make them more entertaining). But having the number of candidates as the sole criterion would eliminate the Bloc Québécois, which fields candidates in only Quebec, so other criteria were added.
Since its founding in August 2018 by Maxime Bernier, the People's Party of Canada had been working hard to find suitable candidates across the country in preparation for the October 2019 election. Being new, it couldn't possibly the criteria for existing members of parliament or previous electoral support, so inclusion in the debates rested on polling and number of candidates standing.
The 90% candidate threshold was reached fairly easily; at some points, the party was ahead of other more established parties in the endorsement of candidates for the election.
The interpretation of criterion (iii)(b) proved more tricky: how do you determine who has a "legitimate" chance? Are polls always trustworthy? Did the polls give any indication that Trump would be elected in 2016?
Nonetheless, the party made its case. The Commission examined its submission, but ended up denying Bernier's participation. This generated much controversy in the media, and party leadership protested the decision. The party was then told that 90% of the candidates had to be confirmed by Elections Canada, and not merely endorsed by the party. The party also had to provide additional information on specific ridings where it predicted a good chance of electing someone. After jumping through these additional hoops, the Commission finally invited Bernier to the debates.
Having watched the debates, I don't really see how the Commission improved anything. Private media organizations had previously been able to set up both orderly and chaotic debates without the help of the Canadian government (and taxpayer dollars.) We could have been spared the spectacle of an "independent" commission enforcing rules set out by a partisan government. Plus, it steamed me to see the Bloc Québécois, a party representing only one province, at the debates, while the PPC, a truly national party, had to fight to participate.
Nanos Research, in its addendum to the Commission's report, proposed additional restrictions to the participation of "minor" parties when discussing the PPC case:
•(...) Adding a regional popular support criterion (e.g. 10% minimum vote share) to evaluate admission to the Leaders' Debate would help better capture the dynamics of minor parties in Canada. Minor parties without a regional base have a very low likelihood of converting votes to seats.
• (...) The Commission may want to continue in some circumstances to use a "willingness to consider the party" test to evaluate the legitimate chances of winning a seat. Since few candidates win with between 25 and 30 per cent of the vote, a standard of 40 per cent willing to consider is probably more likely to be a robust indicator of electoral success.
So there you have it. The new "rules" will only favour new parties if they have a strong "regional" base. I can't help but think that this only serves to weaken Canada, not strengthen it.
In the meantime, there is a lot of work ahead for the PPC. Bernier lost his seat, and no other candidates were elected, so the party will have to earn its support if it ever hopes to participate in future debates according to the commission's rules.
Though I don't believe that should be the focus, since politics is downstream of culture. Rather, let's influence the culture, and educate people on the value and benefits of Western civilization, which is the foundation for our liberal democracy.
And the Commission would do well to remember that things work better when government is the referee, not a player.
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