Samara Appears Before PROC

Blog Post

Happening Now Friday, November 24, 2017 View Count = 2323

Samara Appears Before PROC


Samara Canada was invited to speak before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on November 23rd, 2017. The committee, which studies and reports on the rules and practices of the House and its committees, electoral matters, questions of privilege, MP conflicts of interest, internal administration of the House, and services and facilities for MPs, is currently considering the creation of an Independent Commissioner responsible for leaders’ debates during federal elections.

Samara's Executive Director delivered the following remarks to presiding members of the committee. (Check against delivery.)

Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee.

My name is Jane Hilderman, and I’m Samara Canada’s Executive Director. Samara is an independent, non-partisan charity that is dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy through innovative research and original programming for active citizens and leaders.

Thank you also to the committee for undertaking this study. Samara supports the concept of stronger governance and clearer rules for the conduct of debates during elections.

Debates matter. With this said, research literature is divided on exactly how much debates can change the course of elections. Most would agree that leaders’ debates, nevertheless, are pinnacle events in an election, and unique opportunities for voters to directly compare and evaluate the ideas and performance of party leaders.

Debates provide information to voters. In other words, they furnish a central democratic need. As such, the governance of debates should more closely reflect the approach to the governance of other aspects of an election. But currently, debates are largely ungoverned, their terms decided in an ad hoc and opaque way, and not always only in service of the public interest.

Samara would welcome a move toward consistency, transparency, and impartiality in the governance of election debates.

At the same time, in order to serve their intended function, debates must attract and engage a changing public amidst new technologies to share information. An unduly bureaucratized or top-heavy system for organizing debates could also come at some cost (beyond the material cost).

In short, we feel the committee should consider how to balance regulation with finding ways to permit the fluidity and dynamism that are needed for debates to stay relevant and reach a wide audience.

We believe it is useful to reflect carefully on what should be accomplished, in creating an officer or office to regulate federal debates. From a democratic standpoint, the two most important objectives in our view would be to:

  • First: Set clear, consistent rules concerning who should participate.
  • Second: Institute a system of impartial decision-making, which should ensure that the public interest carries weight. As many have oberserved, negotiations can be otherwise dominated by the competing interests of some parties and some broadcasters.

These basic principles are also reflected in how we regulate other aspects of elections, such as broadcast air time, party spending or creation of electoral boundaries. And these objectives should be served in the creation of formal debates oversight.

We look forward to hearing from the parties and broadcasters at future committee hearings. Given the opacity of the process to this point, we think there is much for the public (including Samara Canada) to learn about the issues in play.

But in our early thinking on this issue, we see a range of possible responses – responses which strike the balance between regulation and flexibility in different ways.

The status quo exists at the extreme end of one spectrum, with little to no effective public oversight. There is little certainty over what debates may look like in the next election. This is especially true given the breakdown of the traditional consortium model in 2015.

A modest response would be to create a formal debates facilitator, along with a set of standards to be upheld in election debates. Broadcasters and parties would negotiate the terms of debate among themselves, as they have in the past, but would be expected to meet standards – for example, including who participates and types of accessibility. This facilitator could also act in an ombudsperson role, issuing public, likely nonbinding adjudication about whether debates meet the prescribed standards. This approach could be accomplished relatively simply and would add a layer of public transparency. It would also be very limited in its leverage, and leave decision-making to the traditional actors.

A mid-range response could include entrenching in the Canada Elections Act the role of a debates arbitrator. There is already a broadcasting arbitrator in existence that may be a model worth examining in this context.

According to the Act’s S.332, the broadcasting arbitrator is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer, but chosen by a unanimous decision of representatives of registered parties in the House of Commons. Notably, this selection happens well in advance of an election – by law, it must happen within 90 days of the last general election polling day.

This broadcasting arbitrator’s purpose is to oversee the allocation of the broadcast airtime among parties, which is guaranteed under the Broadcast Act. Notably, this too, typically happens well in advance of the writ drop.

During an election, the arbitrator is referred conflicts between broadcasters and political parties, and makes prompt decisions which are final and binding.

It’s conceivable that the debates arbitrator could make final decisions about structure, form, and content of debates – in areas where the parties and broadcasters could not agree, or where external parties have made complaints.

Finally, the maximal response would be to create a stand-alone independent commission, with a broad mandate for determining the content and distribution of debates. Under this model, responsibility would be shifted entirely from the parties and broadcasters to a public body. As a consequence, it may be necessary to contemplate stronger legislative powers, including to compel participation from leaders and broadcasters, in order to ensure debates happen and reach a wide audience.

Our initial reflection suggests to us that a mid-range response may be appropriate at this time, given that we are embarking in a new area of regulation, we do not want to create a structure which may interfere with the ability of debate organizers to stay nimble in the fast-moving information and communications landscape.

The appeal of an arbitrator model is:

  • First, impartiality, provided through the appointment process. The arbitrator would have a mandate from all registered parties, but upon appointment would assume decision-making authority.
  • Second, transparency in decision-making. For example, the broadcasting arbitrator currently uses a formula to allocate broadcasting time. Similarly, a debates arbitrator could establish a formula for determining thresholds for participation. That formula should be available publicly in advance of elections with a rationale, and over time, decisions concerning participation would create precedent. There is also a single decision-making authority, as opposed to a backroom process involving multiple actors.
  • Third, fluidity in structure. This model would not require the creation of a full office in parallel to the Chief Electoral Officer. It would also not eliminate the relevant input of parties, or broadcasters, who may have insight into delivering an engaging debate to a wide audience.

I would emphasize that our thinking in this area is early, but I hope these comments can help frame a discussion.

But while I have your attention, I would like to make one final point that returns to an early point this presentation made: the fact that voters need information to help make their decision on how to vote.

In the modern campaign, digital advertising and campaigning is eclipsing the influence of more traditional avenues like TV and radio or, for that matter, leaders’ debates.

Digital advertising happens every day in a campaign, delivered by political parties, 3rd parties and even citizens. It can be highly targeted to the recipient. Yet there is minimal oversight as to how these tools are being used, with what transparency and to what standard. Writing in Policy Options today, researchers McKelvey and Dubois note that artificial intelligence is “changing digital campaigns, and we aren’t prepared for it.”

From a regulatory design perspective, this is a highly challenging area that will require some serious study to design an effective regime that remains current as technologies evolve. The country is less than 700 days from the next election, which will be more digital than ever before.

I make this point to put into perspective the conversation about leadership debates. It’s important, but it may not be the most important policy issue when it comes to the information environment for voters.

We look forward to the committee examining all the available options.  Thank you for the opportunity to contribute.


On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g