Stephane Perrault, the acting chief electoral officer, says Elections Canada must stay above the political fray and should not be perceived as being involved in anything that could influence the outcome of a campaign. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stephane Perrault, the acting chief electoral officer, says Elections Canada must stay above the political fray and should not be perceived as being involved in anything that could influence the outcome of a campaign. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Elections Canada wants no part in organizing leaders debates during campaigns

OTTAWA — Canada’s independent elections watchdog wants no part in organizing leaders’ debates during federal elections.

Elections Canada should not be involved in anything that could be seen as influencing the outcome of a campaign, acting chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault told a House of Commons committee Thursday.

“I strongly believe that Elections Canada must be insulated from any decision-making regarding leaders’ debates so as to remain above the fray,” he said.

“Debates are an important element of the campaign and often contribute to defining the ballot-box issues … 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.”

The committee is examining the idea of appointing an independent commission or commissioner to organize televised leaders’ debates during federal election campaigns, as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 campaign.

The debates became the subject of heated controversy in the last campaign after the then-ruling Conservatives signalled that Stephen Harper would not take part in the traditional two televised events — one English, one French — organized by a consortium of the country’s major TV networks.

In the end, Harper and the other leaders took part in 5 debates organized by various media and social media outlets, including Maclean’s magazine, the Globe and Mail, Google and Facebook, as well as a consortium-organized French debate and another organized by Quebec’s TVA network.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May was invited to participate in just two of the five debates while Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe was invited strictly to the two French ones.

If the government opts to create an independent commission, Perrault said it should set out clear criteria as to which party leaders are to be allowed to participate in debates, leaving the commission itself little or no discretion in the matter.

“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.”

Perrault also warned that the exclusion of smaller parties in future might run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Some small parties have in the past gone to court to challenge their exclusion from the debates. But those cases failed because the debates were considered “essentially private events” that were not subject to scrutiny under the charter, he said.

“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.”

While he’d give the commission little leeway to decide who can participate, Perrault said it should have “broad latitude” to decide the format and “editorial aspects” of the debates, such as the choice of moderator and questions to be asked. Such latitude is necessary given the rapid evolution of the mainstream media and social media landscape, he said.

Representatives of the traditional network consortium — CBC, CTV, Global Television and Radio-Canada — said they’re willing to work with an independent commission. But they argued that most decisions should be left up to them since, combined, they reach the most Canadians, adhere to journalistic standards and have expertise in producing shows that people will actually watch.

The consortium did agree it would be helpful if the government was to legislate a requirement for a minimum number of debates during each election campaign, which would compel party leaders to participate.

That would do away with what CBC’s Jennifer McGuire described as “the biggest flaw in the current system”: the secret negotiations in which parties threaten not to participate unless the terms of the debate benefit their respective leaders.

“Each party pushes for every edge it can get, from where and when the debate takes place, to who can take part, to what format is acceptable,” she told the committee. ”They threaten to withhold their participation as they seek terms to give them advantage.”

The consortium representatives faced some pointed questioning by Conservative MP John Nater, who repeatedly asked why the major networks refused to broadcast the debates hosted by other media outlets in 2015. He accused them of acting ”like a kid in the schoolyard, that if you don’t get your way, you’re not playing.”

Troy Reeb of Corus Entertainment, which owns Global Television, bluntly said there was no way the networks were going to “willy-nilly take a product” produced by another outlet, over whose standards they’d had no input, and put it on the air — especially not when it involved splashing the logo of the rival outlet all over the set.

The consortium would have no way of knowing what trade-offs the other outlets made behind the scenes to ensure participation by all the leaders at a time when “we knew for a fact, as members of the consortium, that one party in particular was seeking very friendly terms” in return for its participation, Reeb added.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, reported an additional 1,307 COVID-19 cases Tuesday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Central zone up to 1,249 active COVID-19 cases

Red Deer sits at 257 active COVID-19 cases

Const. Jason Tress
Mountie testifies another RCMP officer sexually assaulted her at 2012 party

Former Mountie on trial for sexual assault in connection with incident in northwestern Alberta

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Conservatives push for parliamentary committee study into failed vaccine deal

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are calling for a parliamentary committee to… Continue reading

(Black Press file photo).
Pregancy Care Centre seeks support through online fundraiser

The annual banquet was cancelled, due to the pandemic

(Red Deer Advocate file photo).
Registrations for Red Deer recreation programs delayed

Sign-up for sports and culture programs starts Jan. 12

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

The Canadian dollar coin is displayed next to the US dollar Friday, January 30, 2015 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
S&P/TSX composite gets boost to start December after strong November rally

S&P/TSX composite gets boost to start December after strong November rally

Dustin Mitchell (Coats) is wanted in relation to Nov. 25 homicide. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer RCMP)
Man wanted in homicide investigation still at large

Dustin Mitchell (Coats) wanted in relation to Nov. 25 homicide

Toronto police respond to an incident at St. Michael’s College School, in Toronto, Nov. 19, 2018. The trial of a teen accused of sexually assaulting two students at a prestigious Toronto high school is set to resume today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Trial resumes for teen accused in St. Michael’s College School sex assault case

Defence lawyers for a teen accused of sexually assaulting two students at… Continue reading

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The Trump administration is keeping silent about Canada blocking its plan to import prescription drugs from north of the border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trump admin silent after Hajdu pushes back on U.S. plan to raid Canada’s drug cabinet

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration is keeping silent about Canada blocking… Continue reading

Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume, right, speaks at the inauguration of a memorial to the 2017 mosque shooting, Tuesday, December 1, 2020 in Quebec City. From the left, Luce Pelletier, artist who designed the memorial, MP Joel Lightbound, Boufeldja Benabdallah, and MNA Joelle Boutin.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec City’s memorial to 2017 mosque shooting victims symbolizes defeat of hatred

Quebec City has inaugurated a memorial to the victims of the 2017… Continue reading

A scene from last year’s Light the Night fundraiser at the Stettler Town and Country Museum. This year’s rendition is on a drive-through basis only, but it still promises to be a not-to-be-missed seasonal highlight. (Independent file photo)
Stettler Town and Country Museum hosts ‘Light the Night’

This year’s rendition is drive-through only, but will still prove to be a dazzling display

Alberta restaurants face new regulations aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, Photo from Trolley 5 Brewery and Restaurant Facebook page
Restaurants working under new restrictions in central Alberta

Starting last Friday, any area in the province with more than 50… Continue reading

Most Read