Ex-governor general David Johnston nominated as Canada's first debates commissioner

The Liberal government has nominated former governor general David Johnston as the first debates commissioner, tasked with organizing two leaders' debates to be held during the 2019 federal election.

Liberals to set up independent commissioner to organize leaders' debates

David Johnston served as Canada's governor general from 2010 to 2017. He would be the first federal debates commissioner. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Liberal government has nominated former governor general David Johnston to be Canada's first-ever debates commissioner, and to organize two leaders' debates to be held during the 2019 federal election campaign.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould announced Tuesday the government's plan to set up an independent, non-partisan debates commission, along with the criteria for deciding which parties get to participate.

Johnston, who was governor general from 2010 to 2017 and has moderated leaders' debates in the past, will head up a commission with a $5.5 million budget to organize, produce and freely broadcast one debate in each official language.

With the assistance of a seven-member advisory body, Johnston will be tasked with ensuring the debates are broadcast to the greatest number of Canadians, and with focusing on making the debates accessible for linguistic minorities and those with disabilities and limited broadcast access.

The themes and questions of the debates will be determined by the producers contracted to put on the debate — as long as the commissioner finds these to be in accordance with his mandate to ensure the debates meet "high journalistic standards."

Minister for Democratic Reform Karina Gould says that Ottawa is changing its approach to federal leader's debates in time for the 2019 federal election due to the cancellation of the televised English debate in 2015 when one party refused to participate. 0:52

While Gould said that Johnston is only a "nominee," the government is able to name him officially to the post without the support of the other parties. But the minister said that Johnston wants to appear before the House and procedural affairs committee to address concerns of the opposition parties.

Gould said the commission would ensure that the debates become "predictable, reliable and stable element(s) of future election campaigns." That would be a contrast to what happened in 2015, when the refusal of then-prime minister Stephen Harper and NDP leader Tom Mulcair to participate in the English-language debate organized by the consortium led to its cancellation.

Johnston will name the members of the advisory panel, which Gould said will include former politicians and journalists and representatives of minority communities.

No media outlet will be obliged to broadcast the debate, however, nor will leaders be compelled to participate.

Following the election, Johnston will file a report to Parliament detailing lessons learned and offering recommendations for enshrining the debate commission into law.

The Liberal government is proposing to setup a non-partisan commission to organize leaders' debates for the 2019 federal election. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In order for a party's leader to participate in the debates, that party must meet at least two of three criteria:

  • It must have at least one MP elected under that party's banner.
  • It must intend to run candidates in at least 90 per cent of Canada's 338 ridings
  • It must have obtained at least four per cent of the vote in the previous election or have a "legitimate chance" of winning seats, based on polling data and at the discretion of the commissioner

Under these criteria, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May — who praised the government's announcement — would be allowed to participate. The next leader of the Bloc Québécois also would be allowed to participate, while Maxime Bernier might be eligible if he runs enough candidates under the People's Party banner and his polling numbers improve.

'It isn't rocket science'

NDP MP Nathan Cullen asked how the debates commission would define a "legitimate chance" of winning seats. A minimum polling threshold is used in other countries, such as the United States, to determine debate participation.

Cullen said he was disappointed that the government unilaterally selected Johnston as the debate commissioner without consulting the other parties.

"It puts enormous power into the hands of one person," said the B.C. MP. "There's no need for them to unilaterally make these decisions."

Cullen also said he was looking for details of the commission's $5.5 million budget. "It isn't rocket science. It's podiums and glasses of water."

While May also lamented the fact that the government had not consulted with the other parties, she called Johnston "an inspired choice." The Green leader, who was barred from participation in the debates in the 2011 election, said she was elated that the proposal will make the criteria for participation transparent ahead of time.

Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, meanwhile, called the commission announcement "a very sad day for democracy in Canada." She called the process that led to the creation of the commission "undemocratic" and said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was attempting to "rig the 2019 election, sadly, in his favour."

Johnston was named governor general by Harper in 2010.

Questioned by reporters, Conservative MP Alain Rayes said that the party has no problem with Johnston himself, but insisted it shouldn't be up to the government to decide the format and rules for leaders' debates.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is thrilled that she will be included in the next federal leaders debates, but says there needs to be a way to punish leaders who refuse to participate. 1:19