Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer was caught off guard this week when he learned that Maxime Bernier, the former Tory who fell out with Mr. Scheer last year and launched a new right-wing party, had suddenly been invited to two major coming leaders’ debates.
The decision was made by the Leaders’ Debates Commission, a body created and chosen by the Trudeau government and given the mandate to organize two televised debates – one in French and and one in English – during every federal general election.
For Mr. Scheer, something didn’t smell right.
“It’s no big surprise that Justin Trudeau’s hand-picked debate panel [justified] Mr. Bernier’s attendance at the debate," his press secretary, Daniel Schow, said in a statement.
Mr. Scheer’s charge of favouritism is partly self-serving. It is also understandable. Until Monday, he thought he would be facing off against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in two five-person debates that would also include NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet.
Now, he will also have to share the stage with a man leading a marginal party purpose-built to steal votes from his candidates. The presence of Mr. Bernier may give the People’s Party of Canada Leader a last-minute boost in credibility, which would hurt the Conservatives and help the Liberals.
Given that the Leaders’ Debates Commission was created unilaterally by the Liberal government, which set its criteria and named its lead commissioner, the charge that “Mr. Trudeau’s hand-picked debate panel" is playing politics will resonate with Conservative voters.
Their suspicions could further be buttressed by the thinking used by the commission in its decision to include Mr. Bernier in the debates.
The commission originally told Mr. Bernier in August that he wasn’t invited, as his party failed to satisfy at least two of three criteria established by the (Liberal) order-in-council creating the debates commission: It had candidates in more than 90 per cent of the ridings, but it isn’t represented in Parliament by an MP who was elected as a member of the PPC, and the commission saw no evidence it would be able to elect more than one candidate in October.
But the commission also gave Mr. Bernier the opportunity to change its mind, by naming ridings where he believed PPC candidates had a legitimate shot.
Mr. Bernier named five ridings, including his own and two ridings where the PPC candidates are former Conservative MPs. He also pointed to Etobicoke North, where his star candidate is Renata Ford, the widow of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
The commission then did polling in those ridings and found that anywhere between 25 per cent and 34 per cent of those surveyed were at least considering voting PPC. Based on that, and on Mr. Bernier’s social-media activity, his media profile and his standing as a former cabinet minister, the commission changed its mind and ruled that the PPC has a legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate.
However, what the PPC candidates in question are much more likely to do is split the Conservative vote in those ridings, thereby opening the door to the Liberals. That means the PPC is, in fact, unlikely to meet the criteria for debate participation.
The bottom line is that there are serious problems with the Leaders’ Debate Commission.
It’s not the commission’s criteria; the question of who should be invited to a leaders’ debate is inherently subjective. The problem is that those criteria were unilaterally set by the Trudeau government. It’s not a great look.
The goal was the establishment of an independent body to organize televised leaders’ debates and put an end to partisan bickering over who would attend what and when. Instead, compared with 2015, there will be fewer debates this time – partly because Mr. Trudeau is using the commission’s two “official” debates as cover for avoiding debates organized by independent groups.
And now, a last-minute change in the attendees list, based on the subjective interpretation of various factors, and which appears to favour the Liberal Party, has raised doubt about the commission’s independence.
The Leaders’ Debate Commission might have been a good idea in theory, but it is failing its first real-world test. It should not survive the election in its current form.