It was about a month ago that the brand new Federal Election Debates Commission decided on the guest list for the two big Commission debates on October 7th and 10th. There were five leaders who were going to be there; Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh, Elizabeth May and Yves-François Blanchet. Debates Commissioner, former Governor General David Johnston, ruled that only those five party leaders represented parties that met the criteria.
That left People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier sitting on the outside, seemingly held out because of one criterion around chances of electing a candidate. As I mentioned at the time, the goalposts seemed to have been moved on that criteria at the time, seemingly from getting one person elected to more than one, which Johnston said was the case when he denied Bernier. But after that the PPC decided to appeal the decision, at which time they were asked to show where they might have a chance of getting elected.
So it came to today, the deadline for the Commission to rule on this matter; would Bernier be let in, or would he be shut out? Well what Mr. Johnston decided was something that many people didn’t see coming:
Max Bernier is going to be allowed in. In the release about his ruling, Mr. Johnston said that “based on our further evaluation, I’m satisfied that more than one candidate endorsed by the party has a reasonable chance to be elected.” More than one, that’s where this all hangs and that leaves the open question as to where that one other riding is.
As best as I can tell, that other riding must Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley in Southwest Winnipeg, where former Conservative cabinet minister and most recently MLA Steven Fletcher is running for Bernier’s team. One could argue that Bernier owes his spot in this debate to the folks at Mainstreet Research, as they recently did riding polling in that riding that would have supported the PPC’s case to be included.
Regardless of how they got there, the PPC are there and now the other parties have to figure out what to do with this. First off for all parties, the simple strategy of this debate will need to be redone just by the logistics of having six people on that stage rather than five. That means less guaranteed time for each leader and more people to talk over. If things go sideways, those debates could turn into a mosh pit of noise, which doesn’t really help anyone.
If any specific leader should be the most worried here, it should be Conservative Andrew Scheer. The fact is that while having Bernier on that stage could make Scheer look more moderate by comparison, Bernier is a better performer than Scheer, especially in French. Where Scheer is static and staid, Bernier does have more life and energy in his performance. Also Bernier will be debating like someone with nothing to lose, as he will go after Scheer and try to tear him down, trying to get as many votes from Scheer team as he can. And every vote that Bernier takes from Scheer helps the Trudeau Liberals do better. So on that front, Justin Trudeau has to be giddy at these prospects.
For the other Opposition leaders, they now face a big challenge; how to get noticed and remember in this mess? It’s already hard enough to make an impact in a 4-way debate, let alone the 5-way debate it was going to be. Now you make that 6-ways and it becomes that much harder to stand out and make an impact. That task will be made all the harder by having a character like Bernier on the stage, who you know will say bombastic things that will grab headlines and rip at people’s emotions. I don’t know if any of the other leaders can match that, but they need to find a way to try to do that in their own way. One leader who has an advantage in that matter is Jagmeet Singh, as he is the very antithesis of everything that Bernier is running on. Every time Bernier goes on one of his screeds, the very presence of Singh there, debating him and putting him in his place shows the fallacy of Bernier’s words. In standing up to Bernier’s craziness in a respectful but strong way, Singh could be given the same kind of foil that he had back during his leadership race with that woman who crashed his rally.
Whatever comes ahead, this news will surely change the two federal leaders’ debates, both in tone and in substance. I personally don’t think that Bernier should be there and that many of the things that he is saying deserve a national television platform, but the Commission has made it’s ruling. Now it’s time to prepare for that debate and for the other leaders to get ready to not just put their best foot forward, but to put Max Bernier in his place. On October 7th and 10th, we’ll know who, if anyone, is capable of doing just that.