July 8, 2020

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Time to rethink leaders debates

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files</p><p>People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier (left) and Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet discuss a topic during the English-language federal leaders debate Oct. 7.</p>

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier (left) and Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet discuss a topic during the English-language federal leaders debate Oct. 7.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2019 (264 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the not-so-distant past, leaders debates in federal election campaigns were organized and broadcast by a consortium of media outlets. Everyone, it seemed, hated this arrangement, so much so that former Conservative leader Stephen Harper refused to participate in the consortium’s English-language debate during the 2015 election.

As a result, we got the new Leaders Debate Commission, an impartial government agency tasked with organizing the debates. The commission is supposed to, through its impartiality, give the debates a boost in legitimacy. This was achieved in part through the appointment of the impeccably neutral former governor general David Johnston as commissioner.

The commission also established clear criteria that determine when party leaders may participate in the debate. The participation of Green party Leader Elizabeth May, for example, had been up for, um, debate in past election campaigns. The commission hoped to avoid the perception that the opportunity to participate was itself a political football.

In order to participate in the 2019 leaders debates, parties had to fulfil at least two of the following criteria:

1. they had to have at least one MP elected as a party candidate;

2. they had to have nominated candidates in at least 90 per cent of all Canada’s constituencies;

3. they had to have won at least four per cent of the vote in the last election or (and this is where things get a bit messy) the commissioner believes, on the basis of his reading of public opinion polls, that a party has a shot at winning in a few seats.

All three major parties easily passed these hurdles, as they should have. So did the Greens, who had two elected MPs in the House of Commons at dissolution.

As it turned out, the separatist Bloc Québécois, which runs candidates only in Quebec, also met the criteria. The Bloc’s new leader, Yves-François Blanchet, would go on to participate in the debate.

But the road to the debate was bumpier for People’s Party of Canada (PPC) Leader Maxime Bernier. Johnson first denied Bernier’s participation in the debate, claiming that while the party had nominated enough candidates, he was not convinced that any PPC candidates besides Bernier had much of a chance of winning. When Bernier provided polls that indicated a few PPC candidates — including Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley candidate Steven Fletcher — were within striking distance in their local races, Johnson changed his mind and extended the new leader an invite.

Thus, the 2019 English-language debate included six leaders. The result was predictable, as the leaders interrupted one another, occasionally yelled and vied for each little snippet of precious time in front of the cameras. This was especially true for May and Bernier, who, as leaders of small parties, had the most to gain from a breakthrough performance.

Blanchet, in contrast, seemed annoyed that he even had to attend the English debate. Every few minutes he was invited to speak by the moderators and proceeded to suck the air out of the room with lengthy lectures on how Quebec is a country and other well-worn sovereigntist themes.

Bernier’s inclusion changed the debate, for the worse. He often interrupted and spoke above the other leaders. The second question of the entire debate was directed to Bernier. It was about some silly, intemperate comments he had made on Twitter. Who cares?

Again and again, both Bernier and the other leaders returned to the PPC position on migrants and immigration. The PPC is polling at about two per cent nationally, and will be lucky to win a single seat in this election. But the attention paid to his immigration policies made it seem like Bernier was just a heartbeat from implementing all his punitive ideas.

May too often interrupted while the other leaders were speaking; at one point, she brazenly announced that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would not be prime minister after the election. Maybe she’s right, but one can only marvel at the bizarre spectacle of the leader of a party with two seats in the House of Commons asserting in the leaders debate that the second-place party is a no-hoper in the election.

Debates are one of the few real opportunities Canadians have to evaluate the party leaders. Leaders can speak directly to voters, but they are challenged by their competitors. The frustrating part of the 2019 English debate was that the exchanges between the major party leaders — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — were often interesting and even downright informative. Undecided voters could have learned much from the debate.

But they were likely prevented from doing so by the sideshow of the three minor party leaders using up airtime and speaking over the other leaders. The political education potential of the debates should not have been ruined by minor parties that are unlikely to win more than a handful of seats in this election.

Hopefully, the Leaders Debate Commission will recognize this and write much stricter criteria for party inclusion in the next election’s debates.

Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the political studies department at the University of Manitoba.


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