Analysis

MPs to consider creating commission to preside over federal election leadership debates

A House of Commons committee will begin on Tuesday to study the creation of an independent commission or commissioner to oversee leaders debates during federal election campaigns.

After 2015's partisan debate about debates, Liberals promised independent oversight

Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper exchange words during an election debate in 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A House of Commons committee will begin to study the creation of an independent commission or commissioner to oversee leaders debates during federal election campaigns.

The Liberal government has committed to establishing a new organizer for debates and Karina Gould, the minister of  democratic institutions, will appear before the procedure and House affairs committee on Tuesday morning as the first witness. 

Granted, the recent history of MPs considering democratic reform is not promising. But MPs might now agree that the finer details of election debates are better left to someone other than themselves.

A debate about debates

It is the experience in 2015 that serves as inspiration to create a new independent commission.

While a consortium of major broadcasters had traditionally set the terms for debates, the Conservatives moved to accept non-consortium invitations. The NDP responded by saying Tom Mulcair would only appear at debates that included Stephen Harper. Plans for an English-language consortium debate and a debate about women's issues subsequently collapsed.

Debate organizer Rudyard Griffiths discusses the Munk debate after Justin Trudeau says he may back out of them 5:49

The result was something of a hodgepodge: five debates, two featuring Green leader Elizabeth May, only one featuring all five parties represented in the House of Commons.

Granted, a hodgepodge can have its merits, allowing for new and different approaches. But in 2015, the prime minister of the day seemed able to dictate the schedule and even an organizer of one of those debates ended up arguing for an independent commission.

"Let's all hope we've all kind of learned our lesson that this ad hoc manner has been something less than completely productive," Rudyard Griffiths, who moderated a debate on foreign affairs, told CBC's Power & Politics.

"We need a national debates commission. Something that is independent, something that has legitimacy, and something that sets the rules months in advance of the election so that no one party is making its decisions and calculations through what its poll numbers are."

Conservative Party campaign spokesperson Kory Teneycke on federal leader debates and the Conservatives' new approach. 10:37

Responding to the 2015 experience

The Liberal commitment to a commission was first articulated several months before the debate drama of 2015, but Gould invoked the example earlier this year in explaining why the proposal was an important part of her mandate.

"I am particularly pleased and proud that we are going to be bringing this forward, since the party opposite refused to participate in the consortium debates during the last federal election. This is in specific response to ensure that if a party leader decides not to participate we will have debates and Canadians will be able to participate," she told the House of Commons in June.

"In 2011, 11 million Canadians tuned in to the national consortium debate. In 2015...the debate with the largest viewership was four million. This is an important initiative to ensure that during an election Canadians have access to the ideas, to the policies, and to the individual who is asking for their vote and for their trust."

In an interview on Monday, Conservative MP Scott Reid said he'd like to hear the government's ideas for moving forward, something that was missing from an earlier study of electoral reform.

That special committee on electoral reform ended in acrimony and, more recently, a Liberal proposal to have the procedure and House affairs committee study a set of parliamentary reforms resulted in acrimony and an opposition filibuster.

Settling the debates

If MPs wish to comment on the number of debates, the topics covered or which parties should be represented, this consultation could similarly bog down in partisan differences.

If, on the other hand, MPs limit themselves to considering how a new debate body should be structured — how a commissioner or members of a commission should be chosen — and leave questions about debate format to that commission, there might be limited grounds for disagreement.

In theory, a multi-party consensus could bestow a durable legitimacy on the commission and limit the possibility that it will one day be undermined, as the consortium was in 2015.

"I hope it stays at a relatively high level," NDP MP Nathan Cullen says of the committee's study, noting how MPs generally defer to independent commissions to work out the details of electoral boundaries.

Indeed, MPs long ago decided that decisions over the drawing of riding boundaries were better left to others. Allowing someone else to dictate the rules of election debates could surely follow from the same principle.

Party strategists Kory Teneycke, Anne McGrath and Rob Silver discuss the negotiations surrounding the federal leaders' debates 16:40

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