Statements and Speeches
Remarks of the Acting Chief Electoral Officer
Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs
on the study of the
Creation of an Independent Commissioner
Responsible for Leaders' Debates
November 30, 2017
Check against delivery
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It is my pleasure to assist the Committee in its study of the creation of an independent commission responsible for leaders' debates.
I have been following the proceedings of the Committee and am pleased to provide input from the perspective of Elections Canada.
My remarks will briefly touch on the objectives that, in my view, should inform the creation of an independent commission, or commissioner, for regulating leaders' debates. I will also outline a number of considerations respecting how such an entity could be structured and function.
Objectives of an Independent Commission
There are several models internationally for leaders' debates, including regulation through an independent public commission. But before looking at a particular design, it is important to look at the objectives that may lead this Committee to recommend the creation of a commission.
For my part, I would suggest the following as three important objectives that directly contribute to a fair and open electoral process:
- Debates should be organized in a manner that is fair, non-partisan and transparent;
- Debates should be broadly accessible to the public. For example, they should be presented in a format that is available to the largest possible audience, including persons with disabilities; and,
- Debates should contribute to informing the electorate of the range of political options they have to choose from.
In establishing an independent commission, or commissioner, to achieve these objectives, there are three considerations that I believe need to be taken into account.
1. Criteria for inclusion in debates
Obviously, one of the most important and contentious issues with regard to leaders' debates is who is included. This question has given rise to significant controversy over the years. An independent commission should not be mired in controversies regarding inclusion, especially in the middle of a campaign.
For this reason, criteria for inclusion in the debates must be clear, and should allow for no or very little residual discretion by the commission. The criteria could allow for a range of factors, so as to allow some flexibility, for example to allow for the participation of emerging parties. But the criteria should be such that their application by the commission should be straightforward, if not mechanical.
It is important to keep in mind that to date, challenges to leaders' debates under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms have failed on the basis that they were essentially private events not subject to Charter scrutiny. This would likely no longer be the case if the state, or an entity created by the state, were to play a role in organizing the debates.
I recognize that it is difficult to draw the line regarding inclusion in leaders' debates. For this very reason, it is important for parliamentarians to establish the appropriate criteria.
2. Format and content of debates
While I believe the criteria for inclusion should leave little to no discretion to a commission, I see no reason why it could not have broad latitude in shaping the format and editorial aspects of the debates, subject only to the overarching objectives I highlighted at the beginning of my remarks.
In terms of the format, as we know, the media landscape is in constant evolution, in particular with respect to social media. The commission should have the latitude to adjust with the industry and to take advantage of new opportunities.
In deciding on the format, however, the equality of French and English must be respected and promoted.
The broadcasting of the debates should also ensure access for people with disabilities. This means providing closed captioning, sign language, accessible web design or other means of facilitating access for persons with specific disabilities.
In dealing with both the content and format of the debates, an independent commission could be required to receive input from participants and other stakeholders. It could also be required to report to Parliament after the election, to ensure transparency in its decision making.
3. Structure of independent commission
The Committee must also consider the leadership and membership of a commission. Certainly, the Chair and members of the commission, if any, should have the knowledge and expertise to organize the debates. They could include representatives of the traditional networks as well as representatives of new media, appointed through a formula that prevents partisanship. They could also include representatives of civil society groups.
If the chosen model were that of a single commissioner, he or she could consult with civil society groups and other stakeholders, or set up an advisory committee to assist him or her in making decisions.
Some have suggested that Elections Canada should have a role to play in this area. I strongly believe that Elections Canada must be insulated from any decision making regarding leaders' debates, so as to remain above the fray.
Debates are an important element of the campaign and often contribute to defining the ballot box issues. This is what makes the debates exciting and important. The Chief Electoral Officer should not be involved in matters that could be perceived as having an influence on the orientation of the campaign or the results of the election.
That being said, you may wish to consider the Broadcasting Arbitrator in establishing a commissioner or an independent commission. As you know, the Arbitrator is an independent office-holder under the Canada Elections Act. He is appointed by unanimous decision of the parties in the House of Commons or, if there is no agreement, by the Chief Electoral Officer following consultations with the parties.
For example, the Broadcasting Arbitrator could be appointed as the Chair of the commission, to play essentially a facilitating role in convening the commission and ensuring that it functions properly. Or, instead, the model of the Arbitrator could be emulated in the establishment of a new commission or commissioner.
The nature of the commission's mandate may not necessarily require an ongoing entity. For example, most of the editorial decisions will likely be made in the lead-up to or during the campaign.
Regardless of the model chosen, Elections Canada could certainly provide administrative support for an independent commission, including payment of the commission's expenses. This is the model currently followed for the Broadcasting Arbitrator, as well as for the independent electoral boundaries commission.
Mr. Chair, I have set out a number of considerations that I hope will be helpful to the Committee in its deliberations and in formulating its recommendations on this important subject.
I would be happy to answer any questions that Committee members may have.