David Johnston’s nearly 3,000-word justification for why he decided to invite People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier up on the debate stage next month deserves an A for effort.
But Mr. Johnston, as the former principal of McGill University, when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and his alter ego Gerald Butts were undergraduates there, and now head of the Leaders’ Debates Commission, knows that, in the real world, you get don’t extra marks for trying hard.
Hence, as much as Mr. Johnston, who served with distinction as Canada’s 28th governor-general until 2017, tries to rationalize why he ultimately decided that Mr. Bernier should be on stage, his explanation fails to make the grade.
As a result, he has brought discredit to a process many hoped would bring clear rules and order to our federal election debates, which have suffered from ad hoc regulations, petty partisanship and amateurism in recent years.
Let’s be clear. The People’s Party of Canada is a fringe movement created barely a year ago as a vehicle for Mr. Bernier (who lost the 2017 Conservative leadership race to Andrew Scheer) to rescue a political career that was otherwise headed for oblivion. The Quebec MP has torn a page from populist politicians in other countries, especially European ones, by being provocative. He has undermined the unwritten rules of decorum in Canadian politics. But just because that gets him media attention does not make him or his party a contender in this election.
To be sure, the debates commission must not impose artificial barriers to entry that stifle democratic debate. Newly created parties in other countries have gone from nowhere to power in less time than it has taken Mr. Bernier to find a nearly full slate of candidates to run under the PPC banner. French President Emmanuel Macron’s République en Marche won a majority in the National Assembly in 2017 barely a year after its creation. But Mr. Macron’s party emerged as a mass – and more importantly, mainstream – movement from the get-go.
The People’s Party has remained on the fringes of Canadian politics from Day 1. Nothing suggests it is about to make a breakthrough in the Oct. 21 federal election. Yet, Mr. Johnston insists there is a “reasonable chance” that more than one PPC candidate will be elected on Oct. 21.
The order-in-council (OIC) adopted by the Trudeau cabinet that created the debates commission stipulates that more than one candidate of any given party must have “a legitimate chance to be elected” in order for its leader to earn a place on stage. The French text of the OIC is even more exacting, using the phrase veritable possibilité d’être élu or a “real possibility” of electing more than one candidate. Mr. Johnston decided to adopt his own definition.
“Ultimately, I have interpreted the OIC’s ‘legitimate chance’ to mean a ‘reasonable chance,’” he wrote this week in extending an invitation to Mr. Bernier to participate in the English-language debate on Oct. 7 and the French-language encounter on Oct. 10.
That is problematic in itself. But opinion polls commissioned by the debates commission in the four ridings other than Beauce, Que., which Mr. Bernier has held since 2006, do not show a PPC surge in any of them. The EKOS polling firm asked electors in Etobicoke North, Nipissing-Timiskaming and Pickering-Uxbridge in Ontario, and Charleswood-St.James-Assiniboia-Headingley in Manitoba whether they were likely to support the PPC candidate. At best, the surveys established a ceiling of support for the PPC, but the question was far too vague to suggest the PPC candidate in any of those ridings has a “legitimate chance” of winning on Oct. 21.
Indeed, the Canada 338 website, which aggregates all recent polls, rates Etobicoke North and Nipissing-Temiskaming as “safe” Liberal seats; Pickering-Uxbridge is “likely” to go Liberal; only Charleswood is considered a “toss-up,” but more because PPC candidate Steven Fletcher stands to play spoiler in a tight Conservative-Liberal race than to win the seat himself. By the criterion set by the Trudeau cabinet’s OIC, it is a stretch to conclude any PPC candidate other than Mr. Bernier has a “legitimate chance” of winning his or her riding on Oct. 21.
A theoretical chance, perhaps. But not, in the world of polling and statistics, a legitimate one.
Of course, anything can happen between now and election day. But it’s not Mr. Johnston’s mandate to deal in hypotheticals. He was given relatively clear criteria to apply. He decided instead to create his own rules, for reasons that only he knows, but which have subjected him to charges of favouritism, given that Mr. Bernier’s presence stands to help Mr. Trudeau.
All we can hope now is that Mr. Bernier’s presence, which will serve more as a distraction than anything else, doesn’t entirely ruin the main events.