Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and to the committee, for inviting me here today. I am delighted to appear before you with Al Sutherland from PCO.
I appear before you today to discuss our government's commitment to establishing an independent debates commission. We all agree that leaders debates provide Canadians with the opportunity to compare and contrast party leaders' policies, positions and characters.
Canadians, whether they have limited accessibility, live in a rural or remote area or are part of an official language minority community, have the right to access vital information about their choice of leader, party or platform.
Since the 1980s, at least two debates in each official language have been held during the federal election campaigns. These debates are normally broadcast by the mainstream traditional Canadian media. We all know that leaders' debates play an essential role in Canadian federal elections.
Unfortunately, in 2015, this tradition was abandoned, resulting in a debate about the debates. When one party could not agree with the consortium of broadcasters, a signature English-language debate was cancelled.
Unfortunately, in the last election, this process was held hostage by political parties and their partisan interests. Canadians paid the price. In camera discussions and back room deals created an environment that made it impossible to know whether there would actually be a debate, or who would participate in the debate.
An independent leaders' debates commission will ensure that the interests of Canadians are central to how leaders' debates are organized and broadcast.
In 2015, many Canadians were not provided with the opportunity to hear from those seeking to be the next Prime Minister, as the televised debates were not made accessible to all. With the creation of the leaders debates commission, we are ensuring that leaders debates remain a predictable, reliable and stable element of future election campaigns, produced in the interests of Canadians and not political parties.
We did not come to this decision lightly. It was informed by a thorough consultation process that included online consultations with Canadians; a series of round tables with over 60 specialists, broadcasters, academics and stakeholders from across the country; and a study by this committee.
During the consultation period, five roundtables were coordinated by our departments and the Institute for Research on Public Policy. These roundtables took place in Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Montreal. Based on these discussions, recommendations were made, including the recommendation to create an independent body to oversee leaders' debates during federal election campaigns.
As previously mentioned, the creation of the debates commission was also informed by the report submitted by this committee. I want to thank each of you for your contribution to this study. I am reminded that many on this committee supported the idea of an independent body to oversee federal debates.
This report, together with our consultations and discussions, helped to provide a framework guided by the principles of independence, impartiality, credibility, democratic citizenship, civic education and inclusion. The message from Canadians was clear. Leaders' debates need to be accessible to as many Canadians as possible on a variety of platforms.
Moreover, they should be organized first and foremost with the interests of Canadians in mind, and not driven by partisan advantage.
With that, we announce the creation of an independent leaders debates commission, which will be lead by a commissioner and supported by a seven-member advisory board. The commissioner will be mandated to produce two signature debates, one in each official language. The production feed will be made available free of charge to those who wish to distribute it.
The stakeholders also told us that the decision shouldn't be rushed, and that it would be prudent to consider developing a process that could take into account lessons learned in order to avoid being boxed into an inflexible structure.
This is why the proposed commissioner has been mandated to provide a report to Parliament outlining findings, lessons learned and recommendations to inform the potential creation in statute of a built-to-last debates commission.
The Right Honourable David Johnston has been chosen as the government's nominee for Canada's first leaders' debates commissioner.
He has served as the Governor General of Canada from 2010 to 2017 and has had an illustrious career. Among his especially notable academic credentials he has served as principal of McGill University, dean of law at the University of Western Ontario and president of the University of Waterloo. He has chaired commissions at the federal and provincial levels on a wide range of public policy matters, including the environment, learning and broadband access.
He has also moderated several leaders' debates, including during the federal elections in 1979 and 1984 and the Ontario provincial election in 1987. He was also the host of public affairs programs on CBC News-World and PBS.
I have no doubt that as the commissioner he will execute his role in a manner that is neutral, fair, principled, and importantly, with the interests of Canadians at heart.
The commissioner will also be mandated to engage with political parties to negotiate the terms of the debates, with the media to ensure broad distribution, and most importantly, with Canadians to raise awareness about the debates.
His mandate will be to produce two debates that reflect the highest journalistic standards. By contracting out the role of content creation and format to a production entity, the themes, topics and questions will all be in the hands of the production experts, not the commissioner.
Regarding who can participate in national televised leaders debates we have established clear criteria that will need to be met by political party leaders. In 2019, debates would include leaders of political parties that meet two of the following three criteria: one, have a member of Parliament elected as a member of that party in the House of Commons at the time the election is called; two, intend to run candidates in at least 90% of electoral districts; and three, have either obtained 4% of the vote in a previous election or a legitimate chance to win seats in the upcoming election.
These participation criteria reflect the broad parameters already used by the broadcasting consortium for past elections. They take into account the feedback from the consultation process. The commissioner will be mandated to finalize and apply the use of these participation criteria for 2019, and will provide recommendations for participation criteria for future debates.
Leaders debates are a fundamental exercise in democracy and the independent commission will make debates a more predictable, reliable and stable element of federal election campaigns.
I firmly believe that the leaders debate commission will ensure that all Canadians will have access to televised debates during the 2019 election campaign.
Thank you again for having me here today and I look forward to your questions.