Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much for having me. I'm glad to be back at PROC.
I want to thank the committee for taking up a study of what a commission, or a commissioner, to organize a future federal political debate in Canada may look like. I've spoken to many of you already about this topic and I look forward to reading your report on this matter.
Before I get into the meat of it, why is this an important topic? For Canadians, leaders' debates are an opportunity to witness first-hand the personalities and the approaches of the people seeking to be their prime minister. Before we discuss the future of debates and how we ensure their important role in Canadian political life, it may be helpful to quickly cover the history of federal leaders' debates in Canada.
The first televised leadership debate in Canada was not conducted at the federal level. It took place during the 1962 Quebec provincial election—between Daniel Johnson and Jean Lesage. It would be another six years before Canada's first televised federal leaders' debate. It featured Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Robert Stanfield, and Réal Caouette.
The 1968 election featured a single leaders' debate that was carried on all networks. It was bilingual and involved the leaders of every party with a seat in the House. For two election cycles after that, televised leaders' debates did not take place, and the next televised debate occurred during the 1979 election period. The 1979 debates attracted nearly 7.5 million viewers, which at that time was nearly 50% of Canadians who were eligible to vote.
There were no national televised leaders' debates during the 1980 election; however, debates did occur in 1984, and by 1988 they had become part of Canada's election tradition. Since 1984, televised debates have occurred in every successive federal election up to and including 2015. Unlike previous elections, the 2015 election did not feature debates that were broadcast by our national broadcasters.
For the last half-century, leaders' debates in Canada have usually been organized through discussions ahead of each election, led by a consortium of major broadcasters—CBC, Radio-Canada, Global, CTV, and TVA. This involved negotiations with political parties regarding dates, participation, and format.
It is worth noting the important contribution of the broadcast consortium. In order to better serve the Canadian public, the consortium partners agreed to put aside competitive differences and ensure that Canadians were able to witness their political leaders' debate in their own home.
That said, there is no set format. Televised debates in every election are a little different, either in number, format, or the list of parties that participate.
In the most recent federal election, media organizations outside of the established consortium organized four out of five debates under new formats and themes.
The experience of the 2015 election was a departure from the traditional practice of organizing debates. While in 2015 there were more debates than in previous elections, the total viewership for both the English and French debates was significantly lower. While the 2006, 2008, and 2011 debates had average audiences of over three million, the viewership of each of the 2015 debates was much lower. The Maclean's debate drew one and a half million viewers. The French TVA debate drew just under one million viewers. The Globe and Mail and Google Canada debate drew 780,000. The Munk debates drew 490,000, and the French consortium debate drew about 290,000.
Coverage of the 2015 election debates signalled a genuine public interest in how debates are organized, how debates' participation criteria are determined, how formats and themes are chosen, and how greater accessibility could be achieved through new means of transmission and outreach by Canada's traditional media groups and new media players.
The Prime Minister has given me, as the Minister of Democratic Institutions, a mandate to bring forward options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders' debates during future federal election campaigns with a mandate to improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions.
Given that debates are an important exercise in our democracy, establishing an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders' debates would help ensure that the interests of Canadians are central to how leaders' debates are organized and broadcast.
A commission or commissioner would be responsible for considering the future of leaders' debates in an ever-changing digital environment and how debates should be distributed to ensure that they could be experienced by a broad cross-section of Canadians.
This new debates mechanism must strike a balance between the interests of all stakeholders, in other words, the Canadian public, political parties, broadcasters, new media organizations, and civil society. Most importantly, I am committed to ensuring that Canadians are at the heart of the new process.
There are various approaches that can be taken for organizing leaders' debates, and I will be curious to receive feedback and recommendations from this committee.
In one example, the 1991 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing recommended improving the consortium model by appointing a neutral chairperson to preside over the negotiations between media groups and political parties. Under this approach, the chairperson could be tasked with expanding the membership of the consortium to include new media, public interest groups, academia, and other relevant groups.
In another example, the authors of a 2016 colloquium report entitled “The Future of Leaders’ Debates in Canadian Federal Elections” recommended that a different approach be considered, whereby a single host broadcaster or organization would be mandated to organize leaders' debates. In particular, the authors suggested that the Cable Public Affairs Channel, or CPAC, could be well placed to design a debate to advance the democratic exercise.
International models include the creation of a new organization or advisory committee made up of diverse stakeholders, such as public interest, academic, and media groups. Whether as a parliamentary structure, a not-for-profit organization, or an independent government body, the committee would provide guidance and organize leadership debates. The U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates could serve as a model.
Overall, these suggested options are included to stimulate thinking and discussion about how a commissioner can be imagined.
Of course, there is much work to be done engaging with parliamentarians, broadcasters, political parties, experts, and Canadians.
Your committee's study and eventual report will provide valuable insight into the government's decision on this issue.
Debates are an important exercise in democracy. Beyond your study, I will be engaging stakeholders, academics, and Canadians directly.
We are currently in the process of finalizing our plans, and I will be making our broader engagement plan public in the coming weeks.
Going forward, we must uphold the notion that election debates are much more than just media events—they are a fundamental exercise in democracy.
Leaders' debates are a public good. As such, they must be organized in an open and transparent manner through a process that includes the independent representation of the public interest.
What follow are the five objectives that will guide me in my work.
The first is independence and impartiality. The entity must be guided by the public interest and must organize leaders' debates in a manner that is open, fair, and transparent.
The second objective is credibility. The entity must be trusted and supported by Canadians and stakeholders.
The third is democratic citizenship. The entity must institutionalize leaders' debates as a fundamental democratic institution and seek to ensure that leaders' debates are organized at every election.
The fourth objective is civic education. The entity must engage Canadians as broadly as possible and improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions so they are well prepared to exercise their right to vote in a modern democratic society.
Fifth is inclusion. The entity must include broad representation in its membership and advisory bodies to be reflective of Canadian society, and it must ensure that the inclusion of women, youth, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities underpins its activities.
With these objectives in mind, I am looking for input from this committee on the following questions.
Who should organize the debates?
What role should the government play in organizing elections debates?
How can we accommodate legislative and non-legislative proposals?
How can we reach the largest number of Canadians?
How do we ensure that debates are accessible to all Canadians?
Should the commissioner establish a minimum number of debates in both official languages?
What should be the criteria for inclusion and participation? Where and how should the debates be broadcast?
How should production costs be covered by relevant stakeholders?
How should the education mandate of the independent commissioner be structured?
Again, I want to thank you for taking up this study and for inviting me today.
As I said, debates are an important exercise in our democracy. All of us here at the table have participated in debates at the local level, so we know just how important it is for voters to see politicians defend their policies and values.
Broadcasting leaders' debates nationally allows Canadians to watch their leaders in debate and to compare and contrast them, which means they can make better-informed decisions about who is to lead their country.
With that, I look forward to your questions and your comments.