The first official leaders’ debate had six participants, five moderators, and one clear loser: the Leaders’ Debates Commission.
If one good change comes from the next parliament, it will be the obliteration of this commission that never should have existed in the first place.
When that happens, I’ll be proud that I helped strike a blow against it. Just over two hours before Monday night’s English debate commenced, a Federal Court judge ordered the Leaders’ Debates Commission to accredit me and two journalists from Rebel News to cover the debate from the media room.
My case will go into the law record as Lawton v Canada, which wasn’t exactly a line-item I was expecting to have on my resume but it’s grown on me.
The Rebel reporters’ and my requests to cover the debate had been denied by the commission and the Parliamentary Press Gallery, to whom the commission had, for reasons still unclear, outsourced its accreditation duties. The rejection came on Friday – just one business day before the debate – on the grounds that Rebel and True North, for whom I covered the debate, are “actively involved in advocacy.”
I won’t speak for Rebel, but in True North’s case this simply isn’t true. And even if it were, it shouldn’t matter given the volume of organizations like the Toronto Star and National Observer who actively advocate but still received accreditation.
The battle to be recognized as accredited is one I’ve been fighting with the Liberal Party of Canada’s campaign team for the last couple of weeks, as I wrote about in a previous column. The Liberals have a moral imperative, I think, to let journalists cover them. The federal government has a legal imperative, on which my case against the commission was based.
Moreover, the process by which the rejection came about was based on a policy drafted just one day before I was told I’d been excluded. The policy was created to justify a decision that had already been made.
Thanks to a court injunction, this sham of a process was exposed. All of this was inevitable with the bureaucratization of something that the private sector had always handled completely capably.
The last election, in 2015, was one in which media organizations outside the usual consortium of broadcasters that have historically put together leaders’ debates decided they each wanted a piece of the action. And so Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail and Munk Debates all hosted their own debates – with unique formats and flavours, and added opportunities for Canadians to hear from those vying to be prime minister.
As could be expected, some were better than others. Taxpayers weren’t on the hook for them, and no eleventh hour press freedom court cases were required.
This year, Maclean’s did the same. Justin Trudeau didn’t show up, using his presence in the official debate as cover. When Trudeau didn’t accept an invitation to the Munk Debates foreign policy showdown, the organization cancelled the debate. Trudeau will manage to get through this campaign having done only one English language debate – the one hosted by the government commission he set up.
Government’s involvement in anything will invariably complicate it. This week’s debates are no exception to that. Just look at the format.
This isn’t a knock at the moderators, three of whom I’ve had numerous positive interactions with over the years.
Coincidentally, I was sitting near Dawna Friesen on a flight from Ottawa to Toronto the next day, and nearly congratulated her on imposing such discipline in an otherwise raucous debate (though I thought better of it when I realized she’d likely been tired of hearing people speak).
But this idea of rotating through moderators like some national speed dating ritual, while throwing to scripted questions in random spots around the country, ended up breaking the cardinal rule of debates: keep it about the candidates.
By the end of it, I don’t think anyone can say we were better served by the government’s role in all this. In fact, it was the Liberal government’s directive in forming the commission that there’d only be two debates – one in English and one in French.
Former governor general David Johnston, selected because he was an “eminent Canadian” with broad appeal, has gone from being Canada’s viceroy to presiding over a commission so incompetent it couldn’t even manage to ban journalists all that effectively.
Photo Credit: CBC News
Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.
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