Thank you very much for the opportunity to address the committee.
My name is Jane Hilderman. I am Samara Canada's executive director. Samara is an independent, non-partisan charity dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy through innovative research and original programming for our active citizens and leaders.
Thank you also to the committee for undertaking this study. Samara broadly supports the concept of stronger governance and clearer rules for the conduct of debates during elections. It sounds like I am in violent agreement with my fellow panellists. Debates matter. That said, research literature is a little divided on exactly how much debates can change the course of elections, but most would agree that leaders' debates are pinnacle events in elections and unique opportunities for voters to directly compare and evaluate the ideas and performance of party leaders.
Debates provide information to voters. In other words, they furnish a central democratic need. As such, the governance of debates should more closely reflect the approach to the governance of other aspects of elections. Currently, as we've heard, debates are largely ungoverned, their terms decided in an ad hoc and opaque way, and not always in the service of public interest.
We at Samara would welcome a move toward greater consistency, transparency, and impartiality in the governance of election debates. At the same time, in order to serve their intended function, debates must also attract and engage a changing public amidst new technologies that share information. An unduly bureaucratized or top-heavy system for organizing debates could also come at a cost, beyond just the material cost.
In short, we feel the committee should consider how to balance regulation with finding ways to permit the fluidity and dynamism that are needed for debates to stay relevant and reach a wide audience.
We believe it is useful to reflect on what should be accomplished in creating an officer or office to regulate federal debates. From a democratic standpoint, these are the two most important objectives in our view: first, to set some clear criteria concerning who should participate; and second, to institute a system of impartial decision-making, which should ensure that the public interest carries weight. As many have observed, the negotiations are otherwise dominated by the competing interests of some parties and some broadcasters. These basic principles are also reflected in how we regulate other aspects of elections, such as broadcast airtime, party spending, and the creation of electoral boundaries.
We look forward to hearing from parties and broadcasters at your future committee meetings. Given the opacity of the process up to this point, we think there is much learning to be done, for us at Samara as well as the public, to understand all the issues at play.
In our early thinking about this issue, we see a range of possible responses that the committee can consider, responses that strike different balances between regulation and flexibility.
The status quo exists at one extreme end of the spectrum, with little or no effective public oversight. There is little certainty over what the debates may look like in the next election. This is especially true given the breakdown of the consortium model in 2015.
A more modest response would be to consider the formation of something like a debates facilitator, who would help create a set of standards to be upheld during election debates. Broadcasters and parties would continue to negotiate the terms of the debate among themselves, as they have in the past, but would be expected to meet standards updated by the facilitator, which would include, for example, who is participating and the types of accessibility required for the debate to be broadcast. This facilitator could also act as an ombudsperson, issuing public, likely non-binding decisions about whether the debates meet the prescribed standards. This approach could be accomplished relatively simply. It would simply add a layer of public transparency to where we are at now. It would also be very limited in its leverage, as said, and leave decision-making to the traditional actors.
A more mid-range response could include entrenching in the Canada Elections Act the role of a debates arbitrator. There is already a broadcasting arbitrator in existence, which may offer a model worth examining in this context. According to the Canada Elections Act, section 332, the broadcasting arbitrator is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer but “chosen by a unanimous decision of representatives of registered parties” in the House of Commons. Notably, the selection happens well in advance of an election. By law, it must happen within 90 days of the last general election polling day.
This broadcasting arbitrator's purpose is to make decisions about the allocation of broadcast airtime among parties, which is guaranteed under the Broadcasting Act. Notably too, this happens well in advance of the writ being dropped.
During the election, the arbitrator is referred conflicts between broadcasters and parties, and makes prompt decisions that are final and binding. It is conceivable that a debates arbitrator could help make final decisions about the structure, form, and content of debates in areas where the parties and broadcasters are not managing to come to an agreement or where external parties have made complaints.
Finally, the more maximal response would be to create that stand-alone, independent commission with a broad mandate for determining the content and distribution of debates. Under this model, responsibility would be shifted from the parties and broadcasters to a public body. As a consequence, it may be necessary to contemplate stronger legislative powers, including to compel participation or disincentivize absence from a debate, of both leaders and broadcasters, to ensure that those debates reach a wide audience.
Our initial reflection suggests that maybe this mid-range approach might be most appropriate at this time, given that we are embarking on a somewhat new area of regulation. We don't want to create a structure that may interfere with the ability of debate organizers to stay nimble and fast moving in the information and communications landscape.
The appeal of the arbitrator model is, first, impartiality, provided through the appointment process. The arbitrator would have a mandate from registered parties but upon appointment would assume that decision-making authority.
Second is transparency in decision-making. The broadcasting arbitrator currently uses a formula to allocate broadcasting time. Similarly, a debates arbitrator could establish a formula for determining thresholds for participation, perhaps with input on those criteria from a committee. That formula should be available publicly in advance of elections, with a rationale, and over time decisions made by that decision-making authority would create precedents. This also offers greater transparency as opposed to the backroom process involving multiple actors.
Third, the benefit of this model is that there's still fluidity. It does not require the creation of a full office parallel to something like the Chief Electoral Officer. It would not eliminate the relevant input of parties or broadcasters who, I do think, have insight into delivering an engaging debate to a wide audience.
I would emphasize that our thinking in this area is early, but I hope that these comments can help frame a discussion.
While I have your attention, I would like to make one final point that returns to an earlier point in this presentation, that voters need information to help make their decision on how to vote.
In the modern campaign, digital advertising and campaigning is eclipsing the influence of more traditional avenues, like TV and radio, and for that matter, leaders' debates. Digital advertising happens every day in a campaign. It's delivered by political parties, by third parties, and even by citizens, and it can be highly targeted to the recipient, yet there is minimal oversight as to how these tools are being used, and with what transparency and to what standard.
Writing in Policy Options today, researchers Fenwick McKelvey and Elizabeth Dubois note that artificial intelligence is changing campaigns, and we are not ready for it.
From a regulatory design perspective, this is a highly challenging area that will require some serious study to design an effective regime that can remain current with technologies as they evolve. As we are less than 700 days away from the next election, which will be more digital than ever before, this seems like a rather urgent area.
I make this point to put into perspective the conversation about leadership debates. They are important, but they may not be the most important policy issue when it comes to the information environment for voters today.
We look forward to the committee examining all the available options. Thank you very much for the opportunity to contribute.