The Trudeau government has been quietly working on a new body to organize leaders’ debates in federal elections, which it plans to have up and running by next year’s vote.
And while a senior official says the Liberals will unveil specific details in the coming weeks, concerns are already being raised about whether the new entity will be truly independent and impartial.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the 2015 campaign, when the issue became a political football, to create an arm’s-length body to organize future leaders’ debates.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould emphasized the need for an impartial and independent debate commission or commissioner in a letter to a House of Commons’ committee this week.
“Formally establishing an independent commission to organize the debates could help ensure that the interests of Canadians, rather than private entities and political parties, are central to how leaders’ debates are organized and broadcast,” Gould wrote.
She went on to outline some of the government’s views on how such an independent body would operate, including that it should be guided by various high-minded principles such as “democratic citizenship, civic education and inclusion.”
The commission or commissioner should also ensure that “the decision they take reflects diversity in Canada,” she added, while working to ensure debates are as accessible as possible.
Yet Gould was decidedly vague on whether the body should be set up inside Elections Canada as well as the politically sensitive question of how and when it should establish – and publicly reveal – the criteria for deciding leaders’ participation.
The senior official, who did not have authorization to speak publicly, said the government has been working for some time and while some details are still being finalized, the intent is have the new entity ready for the October 2019 election.
To meet that schedule, the official said, the Liberals are not planning to enshrine the commission or commissioner in law, in part because of the time it would take to pass new legislation.
The government will instead approach this election as an “experiment,” the official said, and have the body report on the experience to inform the introduction of legislation after the vote.
The approach raises questions for Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a government-accountability group, about whether the new body will be truly independent, particularly if members end up being named by the Liberal cabinet.
“The person needs to have legal independence, which means serving for a fixed term, you can’t be fired except for cause, having control over the staff of the commission and any decisions of the commission,” said Conacher.
“If you don’t give them that kind of independence, which requires passing a law, then they won’t have the independence needed to ensure the public that they aren’t skewing the debates in one way or the other, likely in favour of the ruling party.”
While introducing new legislation might be tight from a timing perspective, Conacher argued the Liberals could speed things along by getting other parties to buy in with consultations and ensuring the proposed law is truly non-partisan.
Until 2015, Canadian voters traditionally got at least two opportunities during each campaign to assess party leaders in televised debates – one French, one English – organized by a consortium of broadcasters.
During each campaign, the format of those debates, as well as which leaders would be invited to take part, was negotiated among the consortium members and the parties, each of which would try to advance its own interests.
The politicization of the debates deepened in 2015 when the Conservatives served notice that Stephen Harper, prime minister at the time, would not participate in consortium-organized debates.
Several other debates, organized by a variety of media outlets, were held instead but reached much smaller audiences, while unclear criteria meant Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was allowed to participate in two televised debates but excluded from three others.