Bernier's in — and the federal election debates just got less predictable

The stage is set for Maxime Bernier. His challenge now is to perform.

In such a tight race, Bernier's sudden elevation to the big stage will change the debate dynamic

People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier has been invited to participate in two upcoming official federal election debates. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The stage is set for Maxime Bernier. His challenge now is to perform.

The leader of the nascent People's Party of Canada (PPC) yesterday got his coveted invitation to take part in the two televised debates organized by the independent Leaders' Debate Commission. The debates — one in English and the other in French — will be held on Oct. 7 and Oct 10.

The invitation extended by debates Commissioner David Johnston reverses a preliminary ruling last month that found Bernier didn't meet two of the commission's three criteria to qualify.

Johnston's initial conclusion was that, according to polling data current at the time, the PPC didn't have a "legitimate chance" to win more than one seat. He gave the PPC time to submit more material to change his mind.

And now Johnston has — by citing polling data from four ridings the PPC itself had identified as winnable and by factoring in what Johnston called the "recent political context" that included the party's membership and fundraising activity.

So Bernier's in. What does that mean for him, his party and the debates themselves?

For Bernier, the benefits are obvious. Johnston's conclusion that his party has a real chance of winning more than one seat confers a new level of legitimacy on the PPC and its core messages.

The outlier candidate

"Canadians will be able to look at all the options," Bernier said after the decision was released Monday. "I can tell you that the People's Party is a real, national party with serious reforms that need to be done for a freer and more prosperous country."

The debates give Bernier a national stage upon which to promote his ideas — many of which are at direct odds with those of the other parties, and some of which challenge some of this country's long-standing policies in support of an egalitarian and open society.

Bernier has vowed to defend what he calls a "Canadian identity" by limiting immigration and requiring those who come to this country to first pass a 'values' test. He also would do away with official multiculturalism.

Bernier is alone among federal party leaders in saying he would eliminate all government subsidies to industry and kill supply management.

And the PPC rejects the scientific consensus that human activity is the principal cause of global warming. Its platform promises to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, scrap any price on carbon and withdraw subsidies for green technology.

"Despite what global warming propaganda claims, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant," the party's platform says. "It is an essential ingredient for life on earth and needed for plant growth."

A bigger target

Taking part in the debate vastly improves Bernier's chances of contrasting these views with those of the other leaders before a large Canadian audience. But it also will make him a bigger target for the other leaders' attacks. Neither the NDP nor the Conservatives wanted Bernier in the debates. They still don't.

"Mr. Bernier's conduct risks bringing the debates into disrepute," the NDP wrote in a letter to Johnston. "He has eagerly courted outright racists for his new party … His willingness to accept the support of openly bigoted activists is matched by an eagerness to mislead and misinform the public."

The Conservatives made their own submission to the election debates commission (cited by Johnston in his decision) pointing out that the last time a party won a seat with less than three per cent of the national vote was in 1949. The CBC Poll Tracker estimates PPC support nationally at 2.9 per cent.

The Liberals put out a statement saying simply that the party accepts Johnston's decision.

Bernier's presence will change the dynamic on stage, said long-time Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer. More leaders on stage could mean fewer opportunities for the kind of one-on-one exchanges that defined the 1984 and 1988 elections — when Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney and Liberal Leader John Turner engaged in spirited exchanges over free trade and the GST.

For the frontrunners, a new distraction

"Tactically speaking, adding a [sixth] voice to these debates means less time for a bunfight between the frontrunners," Lietaer said. "It will make harder for anyone to score points."

Lietaer and other strategists said they expect Bernier to focus most of his energy and time on painting Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer as two peas in the same pod.

Bernier regularly vows through his Twitter feed that a PPC government would eliminate the deficit in two years — three years faster than Scheer is promising to do — through cuts to foreign aid, corporate welfare and funding for the CBC. 

"It will make Scheer's job more difficult. He will now have to parry attacks from both the left and the right," Lietaer said. "I expect Bernier to go after both. He'll make the argument that Trudeau has failed and Scheer would be no better."

So Bernier has his stage. He has a role. The only thing that's not set is the script. Will he be a bit player, or will he be cast as the villain? If the other leaders have their way, we can expect a little bit of both.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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