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Opinion

Here’s the trouble with PM’s debate plan

By Chantal Hébert       

By not consulting the other parties on his nominee, the prime minister has essentially signalled that the government believes it has the discretion to appoint whoever suits its fancy to oversee the main events of the next federal campaign. That’s a precedent future prime ministers could be happy to replicate.

It is not necessary to doubt the independence of former governor-general David Johnston to find that the optics of his nomination as Canada’s first debates commissioner were less than optimal, writes Chantal Hébert. The Hill Time photograph by Andrew Meade
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It is not necessary to doubt the independence of former governor-general David Johnston to find that the optics of his nomination as Canada’s first debates commissioner were less than optimal.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not consult the opposition parties on the choice of a debates referee nominee.

The Liberal government set the criteria that will govern admission to the leaders podium of next fall’s commission-supervised election debates.

Under the plan, the format and the journalistic parameters of the debates would for the first time be in the hands of a government appointee.

What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s start with the manner chosen by the Trudeau Liberals to create this new body. It comes across as the opposite of an arm’s-length process.

And yet if there is one policy area where it matters that the government does not look like it is judge and party, it is the framing of Canada’s electoral rules.

In opposition, the Trudeau Liberals spent a lot of time rightly reminding Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that no one party should—on the strength of a governing majority—set the rules of electoral engagement.

The debates are not marginal campaign events. They are central ones that have in the past made or broken the election prospects of party leaders.

There is a reason why much behind-the-scenes haggling between the parties and the debates’ media sponsors has always attended their organization. All the participants have a lot riding on the exercise. That includes the governing party.

The debates commission would be tasked to oversee only two debates—one in each official language.

Other organizations would remain free to offer some or all leaders other opportunities to cross swords. Maclean’s and the Munk Centre each sponsored a debate in 2015. But it is easy to see why a prime minister could be content with participating only in the commission-sponsored national debates.

As a rule, a decent night for a prime minister seeking re-election is one that sees him or her walking away from the set with non-lethal wounds. It is first and foremost a defensive exercise.

For that reason, it can be in an incumbent’s best interest to limit his or her appearances.

To have the right for its leader to participate, a party would have to satisfy two of three conditions: to have had at least one MP elected under its banner; to be running candidates in at least 90 per cent of the country’s 338 ridings; to have won at least four per cent of the vote in a previous election, or short of that, to satisfy the commission that it has a fighting chance of winning seats. (If that sounds like it is open to interpretation it is because it is.)

At the time of its 1993 maiden campaign the Bloc Québécois would not have qualified for a debate spot.

Would a federal debates commission have bent the rules to make room on the podium for a sovereigntist champion like Lucien Bouchard? And would the other parties have accepted that decision?

Under the current formula, there would be no less than five leaders on the commission-sponsored podiums next fall and possibly six if Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party makes the cut.

There is undoubtedly value in staging debates that provide voters with an opportunity to check out the full range of leaders on offer. But at the same time a crowded podium tends to offer fewer opportunities to see how the main opposition contenders stack up to the prime minister.

The last federal election featured five debates of uneven reach. After Harper declined their invitation, Canada’s major English-television networks did not organize a debate nor did they broadcast one.

But while part of the purported rationale of the Liberal plan is to ensure that at least one debate in each language is readily available to all voters, there would be no obligation for the major networks—including the CBC and Radio-Canada—to carry the commission-sponsored events.

At least one journalism umbrella group, the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, feels media organizations should think long and hard before relinquishing their leading role in campaign debates to a government-appointed commission.

Finally, by not consulting the other parties on his nominee, the prime minister has essentially signalled that the government believes it has the discretion to appoint whoever suits its fancy to oversee the main events of the next federal campaign.

That’s a precedent future prime ministers could be happy to replicate.

One can only imagine what the reaction of the Liberals back in their recent opposition days would have been if Harper had unilaterally imposed a referee to supervise the 2015 election debates.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs columnist with The Toronto Star. This column was released on Nov. 1.

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