Where is the debate about the debates?

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The debate about the debates has not been as fierce as in previous electoral cycles.  One of the reason, perhaps, is that this time around, according to the criteria set by the Liberal government, Green Party leader Elizabeth May is included by the media consortium and was indeed invited to participate by the Leader’s Debates Commission.

One that has not been invited, however, is Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada.  Bernier and the PPC are appealing the Commission’s decision.  The Commission, strangely, will conduct its own polling in five ridings selected by the People’s Party strategists, and based on that, will come to a final decision.  If they reverse, this will be gold for Maxime Bernier – a government-sanctioned chance to win!  If they don’t, the unfairness of it all may galvanize his base.  But his base only.

Because contrary to May, Bernier is not selling apple pie and doesn’t have the sympathy of many members of the media elites, although some have been advocating for his inclusion.  But he certainly doesn’t have as many advocates as May had back in 2008, when she had similar polling numbers.

Interestingly, we haven’t heard much from May about Maxime Bernier’s presence in the next debates.  Certainly, according to the criteria that she pushed for debate participation, she should be supportive of his inclusion.  Unless maybe she agrees with the NDP, who has argued that Maxime Bernier should be excluded because of “his ideology of hatred and intolerance”.

Irrelevant, stated the Commission.  To be invited, the People’s Party must satisfy two of the following three criteria, none of which are ideological purity:

  • Have at least one member elected under the party’s banner; (Nope!)
  • Nominate candidates to run in at least 90% of all ridings; (Check!)
  • and have captured at least 4% of the votes in the previous election (Nope!) OR be considered by the Commissioner to have a legitimate chance to win seats in the current election, based on public opinion polls. (Who knows!)

Back in 2008, the media consortium announced that the Greens would again be excluded from the debates, despite disgraced Liberal MP Blair Wilson becoming the first Green MP just days prior to dissolution.  The Conservatives and the NDP were opposed to the inclusion of the Green leader, especially considering that the Greens and Liberals had made an electoral coalition of sorts, with the Liberals not running against Elizabeth May and the Greens reciprocating towards Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

Both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton were adamant that they would not participate if May was included because it would effectively mean two Liberal supporters being on the stage.  The Green’s entire campaign became about May’s inclusion in the debates and there was considerable public outcry as a result, particularly coming from Liberal and NDP supporters.  The Conservatives and NDP finally dropped their opposition to May’s participation and the consortium invited May to participate.  May’s participation in the debates increased the Green Party’s exposure.  They ended up with an extra quarter-million votes and 2,30% more than in the 2004 election.

In 2011, May was again excluded from the debate by the media consortium, as the Greens did not have representation in the House of Commons.  The Greens tried to replicate their 2008 campaign to get into the debate, but it didn’t lift off as it had in the previous election.  The Green Party even tried to bring the matter in front of the Federal Court and got turned down.  The Party shifted gears and focussed instead on successfully electing Elizabeth May as the first elected Green MP.  But overall, May’s exclusion from the debates resulted in the Green Party’s vote share being cut almost in half, with a net loss of 360,000 votes.  Bernier is, no doubt, fully aware of this fact.

The debate about the debates occupied much of the early days of the 2015 election.  In May, the Conservatives said they would not participate in the consortium debates and instead would agreed to up to five independently staged debates.  Tom Mulcair simply stated that he would participate in every debate with the Prime Minister.  Five debates were held in different configurations, with the Greens making it into two of the five.  Meanwhile, a new party, Strength in Democracy, which had the same number of MPs at dissolution as the Greens and Bloc Québécois, were not invited to participate in any of the televised debates.

Which brings us to 2019.  While the government ostensibly wanted to put an end to the debate about the debates, it is still raging.  Leaving aside the multiple unofficial Leader’s debates that are being organized, the Liberals unilaterally established rules to determine which party leaders were to be invited to the official debates.  Back in November 2018, Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould said that Bernier would qualify for the debates.  Yet, two official debates are being organized and held by the Leaders’ Debates Commission, with invitations extended to Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh, Elizabeth May and Yves-François Blanchet.   The Commission has judged that Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party did not qualify.  Why?  Because they don’t have a legitimate chance to win.

And this is the crux of the problem, isn’t it?  What is a legitimate chance to win?  Certainly, Bernier has a good shot at his own riding.  But one seat is not enough!  Why?  Unclear.  Are current polls telling the whole story?  Earlier this year, a poll put the PPC in 3rd place in the Greater Quebec City area.  Is being in 3rd place a legitimate chance?  Keep in mind that the current government started the last election in 3rd place…

The Leaders’ Debates Commission relied on public opinion polls and poll aggregators to make its decision, basically telling voters not to bother with the PPC.  They might as well have used witchcraft, though, considering the less-than-stellar predictions we have seen from pollsters and aggregators, sixty days out of past elections.

Photo Credit: National Post

More from Karl Bélanger.    Follow Karl Bélanger on Twitter at @KarlBelanger.

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