Advice for Leaders’ Debates Commission

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Leadership Wednesday, December 16, 2020 View Count = 1429

Advice for Leaders’ Debates Commission

2019 Leaders' Debate

Elizabeth May (from left), Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier, Yves-François Blanchet, and Jagmeet Singh at federal leaders' debate in Gatineau on October 7, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Late last year, the Samara Centre for Democracy was asked to provide advice to the Leaders’ Debates Commission following the first election in which it was active—on the purpose of a public debates authority, achievements and challenges of the first iteration, and recommendations for the Commission as it contemplates its future.

With the Commission tabling its report to the Minister of Democratic Institutions in June, we would like to take this opportunity to share our reflections and recommendations, such as appointing the Commissioner through a multi-partisan process, holding additional leaders’ debates, and revisiting the criteria used to determine a candidate’s inclusion in debates.

Reflections on Commission's Work and Leaders' Debates

Rationale for Creating a Public Debates Authority

The Samara Centre views the following as the key goals which should inform the design and operation of the Commission:

  • Setting clear, consistent, and to the greatest extent possible consensus-based rules concerning who should participate in leaders’ debates;
  • Establishing an impartial decision-maker with credibility and legitimacy in the view of the key parties;
  • Enhancing Canadians’ civic literacy by ensuring a sufficient number of debates seen by as many Canadians as possible, of a quality that is substantive and strengthens Canadians’ understanding of issues and our democratic system.

Achievements of the Debates Commission in its First Election

  • Official debates were organized under a single, clear decision-maker.
  • Transparent rules were established. The Commission has also begun to develop a body of precedent, which could limit the extent of disagreement over inclusion in future.
  • The guiding principles, inclusion criteria, and invitation letters to each party represent a major gain in transparency in decision-making.
  • Commission-organized debates attracted a significantly greater number of viewers than had watched leaders’ debates in the previous federal election.
  • There was greater uniformity in the English and French Commission debates.

Challenges from the 2019 Leaders’ Debates

  • Just one Commission debate per official language, with six leaders participating, limited opportunities for Canadians to learn about issues with breadth or depth, or meaningfully compare candidates.
  • While Debates Commission debates were governed transparently, non-Commission debates went ahead with different inclusion criteria and uneven participation, diminishing the overall impact of the Commission on clear, consistent rules for participation.
    • In contrast, an arbitrator-type debates authority could have held decision-making authority over all debates carried by broadcasters.

  • Some controversy resulted from the interpretation of the inclusion criteria, and questions remain about the criteria themselves.

Recommendations for Future Elections and Between Elections

Appointing the Commissioner

In our view, the Commission acted independently and impartially. Nevertheless, the Commission would enjoy greater legitimacy and credibility if it was empowered by and accountable to Parliament, rather than the Government—including receiving its mandate in legislation, and being appointed through a multi-partisan process. This would strengthen the Commission’s perceived impartiality and better insulate subsequent decisions from accusations of impartiality.

  • See the example of the Broadcasting Arbitrator, who is appointed through unanimous selection of the registered parties in the House of Commons. The Broadcasting Arbitrator has sustained cross-party support and credibility impressively, with Peter Grant having held the position in every election since 1992.

More Debates

The Commission should seriously consider sponsoring more debates. This would be in keeping with the rationale that a public authority should focus on making possible debates which would not otherwise take place, in the interest of better informing Canadian voters.

Additional leaders’ debates would make it possible to scope each debate thematically, and make more time available for detailed discussions of critical issues. Debates spaced throughout the campaign would provide opportunities for leaders to respond to an evolving conversation and emerging issues. Without the ability to compel participation, there are likely hard limits on how many more leaders’ debates the Commission could hold, but two per official language (or bilingual debates in addition to one in each official language) is highly feasible, particularly given that most leaders participated in additional non- Commission debates in 2019 anyway.

Another promising approach would be (with a revised mandate) for the Commission to host additional debates on key issues, and permit parties to put forward candidates other than the leaders. This could make more substantive and educational debate possible, and de-center leaders in Canadian elections, therefore improving Canadians’ understanding of parliamentary democracy and Cabinet government.

The Commission could also contribute to the state of civil debate in Canada by sponsoring or otherwise supporting local all-candidates’ debates.

Revisiting the Inclusion Criteria

The Commission implemented the inclusion criteria following principles specified in the Order-in-Council. There is always a potential for criticism where there is space for interpretation, and space for interpretation is desirable in order for the inclusion criteria to be dynamic and to react to a changing political context. Nevertheless, it would be useful for the Commission to hear from a wide array of voices within and outside Parliament, and to reflect further on possible implications of the existing inclusion criteria.

The existing inclusion criteria could also hold an unintentional bias against new regionally based parties. The criteria may exclude a new party running candidates in one region of the country, which holds a reasonable chance of winning enough seats to achieve official party status and wield significant influence in Parliament.

  • For example, the Bloc Québécois would technically have been excluded from leaders’ debates in 1993 according to these criteria, despite going on to form the official opposition.

  • To avoid accusations of bias against regional parties, the commission could relax the requirement to run in 90% of seats.

The Debates Commission between Elections

The Samara Centre believes that public institutions should do more to support civil, engaging, and substantive political debate between elections, and enhance Canadians’ civic literacy. In contemplating its role outside of elections, the Leaders’ Debates Commission should reflect on whether it can contribute to these goals. In 2019, we published a report on the state of civic literacy and some of the challenges to teaching it beyond the classroom. That report can be found here.

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