Opinion: Let the man speak. That’s not debatable

In the lead-up to its first national campaign this fall, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party had the opportunity to test the waters in four byelections.

The sample was not scientific by any measure, but the ridings in play featured a wide range of political dynamics. To wit, over the first half of 2019, the Liberals, the New Democrats, the Conservatives and the Greens each secured one byelection win.

The PPC ran a distant fourth in Burnaby South, finished in fifth place in York Simcoe and Nanaimo-Ladysmith and sixth in Outremont.

In national voting intentions these days, support for the party hovers around the 3 per cent mark and polls suggest Bernier has a fight on his hands to remain the MP for Beauce beyond the October election.

To qualify for a debate spot, the rules the debate commission is tasked with applying state that a party must meet two of three criteria: run candidates in at least 90 per cent of the country’s ridings, have at least one MP elected under its banner and/or have a legitimate chance of electing candidates in the election. (A variation on the criteria pertaining to the party’s score in the previous election does not apply to the PPC.)

The Liberals, the Conservatives, the New Democrats, the Greens and the Bloc Québécois all made the grade.

Based on its unconvincing polling track record, the PPC did not. Until further notice, Bernier is to be excluded from this fall’s two official election debates.

That could still change should the commission – having polled in a handful of ridings selected by the PPC – find evidence that its current data does not do justice to the party’s electoral prospects.

That may be a long shot.

But be that as it may, the NDP has appealed to the commission to also bar Bernier on the basis of his policies.

The New Democrats argue the PPC should not be given a platform to spread what they describe as “hateful and intolerant” ideas.

Bernier’s views are certainly at odds with some of the core values shared by his rivals: The PPC leader believes a so-called cult of diversity is putting Canada’s identity and social cohesion at risk. A PPC government would curtail immigration and eliminate the federal multiculturalism policy.

On Bernier’s watch, Canada would steer clear of UN-led initiatives on matters such as refugee-related policy and also cut international aid.

As prime minister, the Beauce MP would be comfortable with reopening the abortion debate. Le Devoir revealed on Friday that more than 30 of his candidates are prepared to take him at his word. If elected, they would promote legislation to restrict access to abortion.

Bernier is skeptical about the need to address climate change. He describes the mounting concerns over the issue as hysteria.

While this is only a sample, the sum of its positions finds the People’s Party well outside the Canadian political mainstream. But does that mean its leader has no place in an election debate?

It was not so long ago – only a few decades – that the Reform party came to pre-eminence, notably by advocating for the end of Canada’s official bilingualism policy and by opposing any recognition of Quebec’s distinct character. Preston Manning’s party was also resolutely anti-abortion.

In the same era, the Bloc Québécois rose from the scorched earth of the constitutional wars to promote secession on the federal scene.

The BQ’s sovereigntist agenda was offensive to many voters, especially outside Quebec. And in its early days, the Reform party was described by some of its opponents as a plague on Canada’s unity.

Yet the leaders of both parties were invited to make their cases in election debates, affording voters an opportunity to make up their own minds and their rivals a chance to rebut their arguments.

On its way to becoming today’s Conservative party, the CPC dropped many of Reform’s more contentious policies – including the call to do away with official bilingualism. Despite the best efforts of the BQ, support for sovereignty is flagging.

The positions Bernier is embracing will not go away just because he is kept off the leaders’ debate podium. The PPC has espoused a form of populism that has already spread widely in the U.S. and in western Europe. Is sweeping it under the rug really the best response or does that instead reinforce the message that Canada’s political elites are not interested in levelling with voters?

Are the societal consensuses the other parties base so many of their policies on so fragile that they could not sustain being challenged in election debates?

The NDP is a federal party that – notwithstanding its less-than-stellar electoral record – made itself indispensable in the eyes of many voters because of its political courage in advancing or defending policies that were not always or not yet the flavour of the day. It is hard to reconcile that proud history with its call to issue 2019 debate invitations to parties on the basis of the social acceptability of their leader’s policies.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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