Leaders’ debate format a recipe for populist fodder

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Maxime Bernier’s ideas should be defeated at the ballot box, not in the back rooms of the Leaders’ Debates Commission.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 26, 2019.

OTTAWA—The broadcast debate rule makers need to take another look at their election work. By the current rules established for party leader participation, floor-crosser Lucien Bouchard would have been silenced.

At the time of the 1993 election, Bouchard was the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, having been previously elected as a Progressive Conservative. His party did not field candidates across the country, the second of the three criteria established for entering October’s debates.

The rules currently bar the People’s Party of Canada from the debate because leader Max Bernier was elected as a Tory. Can you imaging the uproar if the founding leader of the Bloc had been denied a seat at the televised debating table?

Rules say a party must run candidates in 90 per cent of the ridings across the country, which again eliminates new regional parties like the Bloc. The threshold for support is either a reasonable chance to win a couple of seats, or support from approximately four per cent of the popular vote in a general election. Current polling numbers situate the PPC just under 3 per cent with a chance to win one seat. Those numbers will fluctuate once the campaign begins.

Not surprisingly, the decision to block Bernier has been met by other parties with muted acquiescence. Conservatives are breathing a sigh of relief because Bernier is trying to tap into the right wing of their base. New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh went so far as to claim the party should be blocked because its viewpoints are odious, and do not deserve a platform.

Many Canadians might have felt the same way about a separatist party, but it was never denied a voice at the table.

Politicians of any stripe should not welcome state-mandated censorship, even when they vehemently disagree with another party’s viewpoint. An organization headed by a sitting Member of Parliament, with candidate recruitment across the country, deserves a chance to be heard.

Last weekend, Bernier’s party held a countrywide candidates’ convention in the nation’s capital, attended by 500 people. The party has managed to nominate candidates from coast to coast and has even recruited some dubious stars, like the widow of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Bernier, who came within two percentage points of leading the Conservative Party, is no political neophyte. His father sat as a Tory member before him, and with his deep roots in that party, Bernier also managed to recruit a number of former Conservative colleagues. Most of them claim to have left the Conservative party to pursue more freedom of speech. They believe the current crop of Tories are too mainstream, denying debate on race and immigration issues.

The PPC is officially advocating a reduction in annual immigration targets by two-thirds, and an end to multiculturalism in the country. Their leader also claims that climate change has not been caused by human activity, despite ample scientific evidence to the contrary.

I am not a fan of Bernier’s ideas. From his misrepresentation of global warming to his call to build a wall against Canadian immigration, he represents the antithesis of my political philosophy. But surely his viewpoint is relevant.

If politically-appointed committees are destined to decide which perspectives can be aired, how does that strengthen democracy?

Bernier’s ideas should be beaten at the ballot box, but he should not be outside the debates looking in. That only strengthens his party’s capacity to play the victim card. Marginalized supporters will claim that their voices are being ignored in favour of other politically correct perspectives.

Given the makeup of the moderators for the English language debate, you can hardly blame them. The debate airing on October 7 features five respected women journalists, including Lisa Laflamme of CTV, Rosemary Barton of CBC, Dawna Friesen of Global, Althia Raj of Huffpost and The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt.

All of the aforementioned have the qualifications and the experience to be excellent moderators. But why should a panel on Canadian politics only include participants of one gender? I would be first to complain if the debate consortium had chosen only men. So why is it okay to repeat gender bias with a women-only line-up? Former governor-general David Johnston, the first-ever debates commissioner, is treading a fine line in decisions on the format and composition of the debates. In French, there will be a mix of genders, with three men and two women journalists.

By excluding Bernier from this politically correct table, Johnson is providing dangerous fodder to the populists.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.