Canada needs an independent, non-partisan body to plan leaders debates

  • National Newswatch

Is it too much to ask that leaders debates become part of an exercise in democracy rather than political gamesmanship?Between elections there is an inherent advantage for any prime minister over his political opponents: the levers of power bring with it great resources, including access to privileged information and near unlimited (albeit sometimes unwelcome) media attention.  Once an election period is underway, however, the incumbency advantage quickly begins to wane.In a debate among party leaders, the playing field is leveled even further: the public exposure is shared equally and challengers have a clear opportunity to burnish their credentials as credible alternatives to the incumbent government.With yesterday's announcement by the Conservative party that they would accept up to five independently-staged leaders debates, while declining a proposal from a consortium of Canadian network broadcasters for a series of leaders' debates, the jockeying for political advantage in the 2015 election has officially begun.  Expect public interest to take a back seat to partisan political interests as all parties stake out their positions.This being an election year, earlier this spring pundits offered their analyses of the political calculations each party's inner circle must make with respect to the leaders debates.  Chantal Hébert, Robert Benzie and CBC's At Issue panel all weighed in about whether or not it is to Stephen Harper's advantage to opt for more debates than usual.As every new campaign approaches, party strategists analyze and assess the risks and opportunities that each potential debate holds. But depending on the relative strengths and weaknesses of a party leader and where a party may sit in the polls, the assessment of the merits of more versus less debates varies.Some Conservative partisans are of the view that Prime Minister Harper would outshine the far less experienced Justin Trudeau -- his main rival, according to most polls – while others have cautioned that giving the Liberal leader an opportunity to demonstrate that he is more astute than the Conservative party's ads aim to portray him risks undermining a key tactic of their campaign.Meanwhile, Liberal and NDP strategists are having their own internal discussions about the ideal number and nature of debates.  Tom Mulcair's advisors favour more debates, seeing them as an opportunity to provide solid evidence of their leader's policy depth and leadership skills.  Liberal strategists are presumably still deliberating on what number of debates will deliver just the right amount of exposure versus risk.The parties do not, of course, plan the debate schedule only amongst themselves.  Few Canadians are aware of the decades-long role that a mysterious 'consortium' of news directors from Canada's major television networks (CBC, CTV, Global, Radio Canada and TVA) have had in planning leaders debates.  Every election, the broadcast consortium's negotiations with party representatives features intense, behind the scenes lobbying, threats and jockeying by political partisans charged with representing their parties' interests in these negotiations.  No doubt it is a huge headache for broadcasters and a stressful process for party strategists.The public interest is rarely, if ever, the paramount consideration of party strategists – unless, that is, one is given to equating a particular party's interest with those of the voting public.  And, let's not forget that the networks have their own, largely commercial, interests: while the broadcasters realize they cannot afford to be perceived as ignoring the election debates, they are disinclined to press for a series of debates due to the loss of prime time advertising revenues (no advertisements run during the debates).So, with little scrutiny -- the 'negotiations' are shrouded in secrecy -- no accountability, and interests that may intersect but certainly do not parallel the public interest, the consortium, in consultation with party representatives, makes some of the most impactful decisions of the entire campaign.  The participants in this process have no explicit mandate and are unhindered by any rules; it all comes across as arbitrary and holds the potential for biased or unfair outcomes.It doesn't need to be this way.While the US political system is fraught with problems – e.g., a google search for “influence of money in US politics” yields over 440 million results – Canada would do well to take a few cues from the Americans on how to handle political debates.The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) – an arm's-length, non-partisan, non-profit entity – has a mandate “to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”  The CPD has chosen the dates, venues, formats and moderators for every presidential (and vice presidential debate) since its establishment in 1987.  The CPD has also established guidelines covering the question of debate participation, a thorny issue that regularly plagues debate organizers in Canada.Unlike the mad scramble we see in Canada in advance of elections, debate planning in the US begins two years out, with the CPD beginning the process by issuing site selection guidelines and inviting proposals to host debates.  The dates and locations are selected one year in advance of the election date, allowing ample time for necessary security and media arrangements at all venues. (Each party's campaign organizers accept the need to plan their travel and event schedule around locked-in dates for the debates.)The Americans do not suffer through the arbitrary, pressure-filled, tactic-driven negotiations that occur during Canadian elections.  Calls for change in Canada have been heard in the past: Tony Burman, who as former head of CBC news was involved in the consortium's negotiations, has suggested we would be better off with a US commission-style system; Andrew Coyne described reform as an “urgent necessity” in 2011.  The Conservative announcement yesterday, which included its own criticism of the consortium process, served to provoke further calls for change; hopefully the voices calling for reform will grow ever louder.Now that Canada has US-style fixed election legislation, it makes more sense than ever for us to establish an independent, non-partisan body similar to the Commission on Presidential Debates (though we would need to establish a process to deal with the unexpected elections that emerge during minority governments, as well).  Canada's process need not be as grandiose as the large, permanently staffed CPD, but we can certainly benefit from a higher degree of planning undertaken by an independent body whose primary purpose is to serve the democratic process, not political or commercial broadcasters' interests.  It's too late to set this in motion for the 2015 election, but we'd all be better off if participants in the ongoing debate negotiations would take a few moments to agree on the need to adopt a new process for future elections.Until we take the decision-making out of the hands of those whose interests may be at odds with those of the voting public, we cannot fault the political strategists or network execs for looking after their respective interests. But given how fundamental a leaders debate is to democratic elections, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice in not handing responsibility for planning debates to an independent, non-partisan body.James Anderson is an Ottawa-based public affairs consultant and partner in National Newswatch.  He has been involved in political campaigns at all levels.