For the past few elections an on going part of the discussion around the campaign itself has been about debates, and for good reason. While not all debates make a mark in our election campaigns, some campaigns have turned on very good or very bad debate performances. That’s one of the reasons why being on that stage is so important and why we seem to have endless debates about those debates in this country.
In the 2006, 2008 and 2011 campaigns, the debate revolved around if the Greens should take be taking part in the Federal Leaders Debates and if the rules around debate participation were fair. In 2015, with Elizabeth May being duly elected as a Green MP, that debate died for that campaign. But with the death of that debate, another was started when we saw more national leadership debates put on the agenda. In that campaign we had a grand total of five debates, with a different number of participants in each one. Only one debate had all five leaders, while two had only four and the other two only had three leaders invited, which created controversies all their own.
So going into 2019 some might thought that we might finally be out from under these debates about debates. With the creation of an independent commission for Leaders Debate, this whole process seemed to be made more independent and less prone to politics. It was with that history in mind that we heard some news from that group about invitations to the two leaders’ debates, and it seems to be news that will kick off another debate about debates:
Five parties have their invites but there is one out there sitting on the bubble, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. The fact that they are sitting on the bubble here is what will turn out to be the debate this time. When the new Federal Debate Commission was announced last year, here are the criteria for participation in said debate. To have a party leader take part, that party would need to meet two of the following three criteria:
- At the time the general election in question is called, the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party;
- The Debates Commissioner considers that the party intends to endorse candidates in at least 90% of electoral districts in the general election in question; and
- The party’s candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least four percent of the number of valid votes cast or, based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results, the Debates Commissioner considers that candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question;
That all seems very straight forward, right. But here is what CBC’s Aaron Wherry reported on Twitter the Commission is now saying about that criteria:
Spot the difference folks? It’s a big one. The PPC can’t meet the first criteria as a new party, but they should easily meet the second. So where does that leave us with the third and final one? Well this is where the language gets tricky and the goalpost seemed to have moved a bit. Last year the commission said that the party “have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election” but now they are saying that they “not yet seen sufficient evidence to conclude that the People’s Party of Canada has a legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate in the next federal election.”
Where did this “more than one” come from? That seems like a very legitimate and honest question that needs to be answered because no where did the Commission indicate the need to win multiple seats before. It said “a legitimate chance to be elected” period, nothing about a number of seats. If there were the criteria put on Elizabeth May in the past she never would have gotten on the stage before 2015.
The fact remains that by all polls out there and the aggregators, the general consensus is that the PPC really only has a chance at winning Maxime Bernier’s seat in Beauce; nowhere else are they currently a factor to win outright. So this last-minute tweaking of these requirements seems to ensure that we’re going to be faced with a month plus of PPC’s supporters demanding that Max be allowed to participate in these debates, similar to what the Greens did in support of Elizabeth May in the past.
I for one don’t want to see Max Bernier be given a national TV platform to spew a lot of what he’s been saying elsewhere, but this tweak to this criterion just seems destined to give him more spotlight and attention. On top of that, at a time when there are already some people out there criticizing the very existence of this debates commission, this just opens up a large avenue to go at them. This is the political equivalent of tying a massive “kick me” sign on the back of this commission and sending out into the public square.
Personally I was tired of these debates about debates long ago and I was hoping that with the advent of this commission and some ground rules that we could get beyond this. Yet with this announcement today it seems that we’re up for another round of this tired old argument. I’m honestly left my head shaking wondering what the commission was thinking here and I hope that they clean up this mess fast because the last thing our democracy needs right now is another divisive debate about who gets to be in the bloody debates.