David Johnston On New Debate Commission: Criteria Has “Element Of Subjectivity”

2015 Leaders' Debate

David Johnston On New Debate Commission: Criteria Has “Element Of Subjectivity”

Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper, and Tom Mulcair at the Munk Debate on Canada’s foreign policy on Sept. 28, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

  By Andrew Thomson | UPDATED October 30, 2018 9:51pmET


Former governor general David Johnston, who moderated televised leaders’ debates in 1979 and 1984, is the government’s choice to head the new commission charged with overseeing two debates — one English and one French — in 2019.

Johnston would be tasked with creating a seven-member advisory panel to help settle on a debate format, oversee technical production, and provide the debate feed free of charge, according to Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.

The Leaders’ Debate Commission would also determine which leaders would have a podium on the stage next year. Parties would need to meet two of the following three criteria:

  • an elected MP at the time the election is called;
  • intention to run candidates in at least 90 per cent (304) of Canada’s 338 electoral districts;
  • four-per-cent popular support in the previous election or a “legitimate chance to win seats in the upcoming election.”

But how to determine which party has a “legitimate chance” at electing MPs? Would Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada be included?

Johnston told CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen today that “it has an element of subjectivity” — but that he was “quite comfortable” with the criteria; polling results, party history, and campaign efforts would be the likely measuring sticks.

“On the one hand, you want as wide and broad a participation as possible,” Johnston said. “On the other hand, you want to have sufficient focus that the people who are appearing do represent significant political interests.”

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Asked whether he should have the power to compel parties to attend commission debates, Johnston said he expected leaders would be eager for the opportunity to participate in a clear, well-established format.

The 77-year-old former vice-regal said he was “delighted and honoured” to accept the government’s invitation, and is willing to meet parties and MPs on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs before being finalized in the role to lead the commission, which has $5.5 million in funding over two years.

But NDP MP Nathan Cullen immediately criticized the process of selecting Johnston, if not the nominee himself, arguing the commissioner should have unanimous party support as recommended in a March report by the procedure committees.

Conservatives also aired their opposition to the very creation of a commission.

Green Leader Elizabeth May, who unsuccessfully sought legal action to be included in the 2011 debates, lauded the commission but also bemoaned the announcement of a commissioner without all-party support.

For decades, the country’s largest broadcasters were solely responsible for organizing the televised debates: the time, location, questions, and which leaders could participate.

The first debate took place on June 9, 1968 with Pierre Trudeau, Robert Stanfield, Tommy Douglas, and Réal Caouette. The next two didn’t occur until 1979 and 1984.

Past disputes over which party leaders were eligible to take part led the 2015 Liberal platform to promise an “an independent commission to organize leaders’ debates and bring an end to partisan gamesmanship.”

That same year, the Conservative Party of Canada rejected the traditional consortium for a series of debates held by Maclean’sThe Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates, and the TVA network. (Although the broadcast consortium did organize a French-language debate.)

And Conservatives disagreed with the March procedure committee report, arguing a commission was unnecessary and a “poorly-considered option.”

Last month the Institute for Research on Public Policy released its own recommendations for a debate commission.

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