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Maxime Bernier’s exclusion from Leaders’ Debate undermines mandate of new Debates Commission

By Kristy Koehler, August 15 2019—

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, has been left off the initial list of federal debate participants. His exclusion by the new Leaders’ Debates Commission is an abhorrent misstep that undermines the mandate of the Commission.

Two of three criteria must be met for inclusion in the debates. First, the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party. Second is that the party intends to run candidates in at least 90 per cent of electoral districts in the election in question and the third is that the “the party’s candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least 4 per cent of the number of valid votes cast” or “based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results,” the Commissioner considers that candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the upcoming general election.

The first criterion seems as though it was designed solely to exclude Bernier. As the Member of Parliament for the riding of Beauce, Bernier previously represented his constituents under the Conservative banner. After narrowly losing the party’s leadership race to Andrew Scheer, Bernier formed his own party — the PPC. While Bernier is a member of the House of Commons, he was not elected as a member of the PPC because the party formed post-election, meaning that he fails to satisfy the requirement. 

The five parties invited to the debate include the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois.

Currently, the Green Party is running 241 candidates, the New Democratic Party has 149 confirmed, the Liberal Party has registered 242 and the Bloc Québécois are fielding 37. In the lead is the Conservative Party of Canada with 331 confirmed candidates, followed closely by the People’s Party with 312.

The infographic on the Government of Canada website to describe the creation of the Commission claims that “leaders’ debates make an essential contribution to the health of Canadian democracy.” How healthy is Canadian democracy really, when we’re leaving out a party with 312 candidates so far? 

With less than 70 days until the election and the writ set to drop in the first two weeks of September, the NDP have more ridings yet to nominate than they have named and the Liberals just triggered their “national electoral emergency” clause, which allows them to bypass their own nomination rules to ensure there are candidates in key ridings. It’s not as though Jagmeet Singh and Justin Trudeau should have been shocked that there was an election coming up. Bernier has stated his intention to run a candidate in every riding, a feat that, considering what he has managed to do since the party’s inception, seems very manageable.

The third criterion is worded woefully vaguely, giving the Debates Commissioner altogether too much authority to decide who is and is not likely to be elected. If the American election proved anything, it’s that polling means very little. In Bernier’s rebuttal letter to the Commissioner, posted on the People’s Party of Canada website, he cites electoral volatility as just one of the reasons that current polling shouldn’t factor into this decision, using the example of the Brexit Party’s jump from 10 per cent to 35 per cent within the span of two months. 

Bernier also cited the byelections in Burnaby South, where, in competition against a Party Leader, the PPC fielded a candidate only one month after being recognized as an officially registered party and achieved just shy of 10 per cent of the vote — a feat that took the Green Party 23 years to achieve. 

The decision to exclude the PPC may have been more acceptable had it not been for the inclusion of the Bloc. To include a party with no appeal outside of a single province and with candidates in just under 11 per cent of Canadian ridings in an English-language debate makes about as much sense as square wheels. 

The Leaders’ Debates Commission website says that it “will make the debates a more predictable, reliable and stable element of federal election campaigns.” Well, by excluding Bernier it will certainly be predictable — the same old parties debating the same old issues, featuring milquetoast commentary and mind-numbing recitations of numbers and percentages relating to taxes and jobs  — but is that what you want in a debate? 

The website also says that debates “give you a chance to see the character, temperament, and unscripted approaches of leaders seeking to be Canada’s Prime Minister.” Bernier is certainly unscripted — some might even say unhinged by looking at his Twitter feed. But, combine his say-anything personality with the somber mood of the other candidates during most debates and you might just get a chance to see those characters and temperaments you were promised.

The best way to make a Canadian Leader’s debate entertaining is to take a drink every time somebody says “the middle class.” Or, you could just include Bernier. At least then you’ll get more diversity of opinion than arguing over whether 450,000 jobs were created or 500,000 or whether the planet is going to explode in three years or four.

Canadians should be able to hear from all of the leaders who are fielding candidates. If Tim Moen of the Libertarian Party ever decides to field more than a handful of candidates, I want to hear from him too. Elizabeth May has been left out of many a debate and, to be clear, I didn’t agree with that either — she’s been the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands since 2011. 

While there is precedent for allowing a leader without a seat to debate — in 1993 Preston Manning was included in the Leaders’ Debate, without holding a seat at all, let alone a seat under his Reform Party banner — we do need some rules around the debate. I don’t want to hear from the Christian Heritage Party — not because I think they shouldn’t be included, but because they don’t have enough candidates to be relevant. 

I’m no Debates Commissioner, but I’d set the following conditions: the party leader has or is running for a seat in the House of Commons — with no caveat about what banner they were elected under — and the party is fielding candidates in 50 per cent of ridings. Done. No wishy-washy polling, no gut feelings about the political climate, no party with single-province appeal.

May tweeted her way into the debates in 2015, following along with the questions, offering her policies and refusing to be excluded. Bernier should — and likely will — do the same if he fails to change the Commissioner’s mind. He will not accept this decision quietly without finding a way to become part of the conversation.

You don’t have to agree with Maxime Bernier. You can think what he says is disgusting, populist rhetoric. You can turn your television set off or mute it when he’s speaking. But, it’s a travesty to exclude a federal leader who has a seat in the House of Commons and an almost-full slate of candidates. Denying him the ability to speak is an exercise in hypocrisy on the part of a Debates Commission that purports to facilitate the democratic process.

One can only hope that groups other than the Leaders’ Debates Commission host their own events and that the leaders participate. Leaders should not boycott these unofficial debates as they have done in the past. A good leader should want to debate, should want to take the stage on every podium offered in order get their message to the widest number of Canadians possible, and should be more than willing have his or her mettle — and ideas — tested against the competition. The best-case scenario is a multitude of debates on various topics — economy, climate change, national defence, immigration, taxation, foreign policy. I want to hear it all, to get a well-rounded, robust view of the person I’m electing to lead. 

If the federal party leaders would like to give me a call, I’m happy to host — and Mr. Bernier, you’re certainly invited. I can promise it won’t require a drinking game to be as entertaining as it is informative.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet‘s editorial board.



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