Evidence of meeting #82 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was debate.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Jennifer McGuire  General Manager and Editor in Chief, CBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Michel Cormier  General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Troy Reeb  Senior Vice-President, News, Radio and Station Operations, Corus Entertainment Inc.
Wendy Freeman  President, CTV News, Bell Media Inc.
Stéphane Perrault  Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada
Michael Craig  Manager, English and Third-language Television, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
Peter McCallum  General Counsel, Communications Law, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

12:30 p.m.

Manager, English and Third-language Television, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

Michael Craig

As I explained in my opening remarks, anything to do with the structure of a commission or the mandate and role of a commission or a commissioner is not something we're going to be taking an opinion on.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

David Graham Liberal Laurentides—Labelle, QC

I understand. Thank you very much.

I'll pass my remaining time over to Ms. Sahota.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Ruby Sahota Liberal Brampton North, ON

I'm very interested to hear that you're absolutely against the idea of Elections Canada being involved. That has enlightened me, and I completely agree. I think it would be wise to maintain their independence for the election purpose.

At the same time, you said that the broadcast arbitrator could sit as a chair on the commission. Do you think that would still be seen as not having independence from the election?

12:35 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

To me that's a very different matter. The broadcasting arbitrator sits under the umbrella of the Canada Elections Act. It operates completely independently from the Chief Electoral Officer and is appointed, as I've said, by unanimous agreement of the parties in the House. There's an arm's-length relationship; its decisions are not that of the Chief Electoral Officer.

At the same time, what I like about this model is that given the fact that this commission would not likely be operating on a full-time basis—it would need to ramp up and down—having a new bureaucracy created for it seems a bit rich. Having Elections Canada provide administrative support, as we do for electoral boundaries commissions or for the the arbitrator, is appealing.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Ruby Sahota Liberal Brampton North, ON

Thank you.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you.

We'll now go to Mr. Reid, for seven minutes.

November 30th, 2017 / 12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I have a series of questions, all of which stem from Mr. Perrault's excellent presentation. I thought it was one of the most thoughtful presentations I've heard on any subject before this committee for some time. But before I do that, I just want to respond editorially to Mr. Graham's inquiry about local debates.

There are no formal standards for local debates, as he knows. If you look around, you'll discover that they take on a very similar character across ridings and within a riding, despite the fact that these groups clearly don't talk to each other. The scheduling of debates in my own very large, rural riding confirms this. We are constantly driving back and forth from the far ends of the riding. That being said, they do have a natural symmetry.

I just wanted to say that once you get into having some kind of central control, you have to start getting into centralized criteria such as accessibility. In a rural riding like mine, or yours—our Chief Electoral Officer can confirm this—trying to find suitable polling locations that are accessible and meet all the relevant criteria is a logistical nightmare. We frequently fudge on that, the chambers of commerce and so on that organize these things. I think allowing that fudge factor to continue to exist is the right way of handling things. A decentralized system is the best way of achieving it. Those are my thoughts.

My questions are for Mr. Perrault.

Let me start with page 3 of your presentation. You suggested there are three important objectives that need to be met. You said that debates should be organized in a manner that is fair, non-partisan, and transparent, and that debates should be as broadly accessible as possible to the public. You then made specific reference to making sure they are available to persons with disabilities. I imagine you're thinking primarily of visual and auditory disabilities, although you may have others in mind as well. The third criterion was that they should inform the electorate of the range of political options they have to choose from. I assume that is a reference to the various political parties.

12:35 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

That's correct.

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Let me ask this question. Looking at 2015—essentially the most recent status quo—where do you think we failed on those criteria? Where is there room for improvement, based on what you saw happening in 2015?

12:35 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

I'm not in a position to comment on what happened in 2015 in terms of the debates, whether they met anybody's standard or expectation. You've heard from a number of witnesses on that point. I'll leave it at that.

These I put forward as objectives, not as criteria that must be met. I think this is the spirit or the objectives that I think could serve to guide the mandate of a commission, should the committee want to establish one. I'm not saying, for example, that all parties would have to be represented in the same format at the same time in a single debate. I'm saying that the spirit of having a commission would be in part to ensure there's the broadest possible way of informing Canadians on the various options.

I'm not sure if that answers your question.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

It does answer my question. I just wanted to make sure there weren't some further thoughts that you had, but did not have the ability to express. You've been very helpful that way.

The next question I want to ask relates to page 4 of your presentation where you say that “criteria for inclusion in the debates must be clear, and should allow for no or very little residual discretion by the commission.” I just want to editorialize that I think you're right. This does raise the question that a commission would presumably, as our electoral boundaries commissions do, have to formulate its proposals well in advance of an election in order to ensure that we are not in the middle of a writ period or at the dawn of a writ period, surprised to discover that, for example, the Green Party is in or out.

Does it seem reasonable to you that a commission or commissioner ought to have to make recommendations in this regard, assuming that he or she has been left with that discretion well in advance of a writ period, in order to allow the appropriate public feedback that meets whatever standards Canadians have?

12:40 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

Maybe I wasn't clear in my explanation. I don't think that the commission or commissioner should have the role of establishing the criteria. I think it's preferable for Parliament to decide what the criteria are, and that the commission or commissioner simply have a role in a fairly mechanical way of applying those criteria. I think Parliament is better positioned. I think having the commissioner establish the criteria would bring him or her into controversies. I don't know that it's something that would be of use to be done well in advance of the election. Things may evolve closer to the election, so that's my position.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Actually, you did make it clear. As you were speaking, I was looking at the part of your presentation that I hadn't read while I was making notes on it. First time around, you did specifically use the word “mechanical”, so you were quite clear on that.

That raises the point, if I may editorialize again for the benefit of the whole committee, that we'd have to put criteria, whatever the criteria are determined on which parties are in and which ones are out, in the statute itself. I don't think that is a problem that can be avoided if we aren't giving it to the commissioner.

In the remaining moment I have left, I just want to ask, does this require a commission model? Does it require changes to the Canada Elections Act or not?

12:40 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

I guess it would depend on the model that you choose. You could conceivably do it through that mechanism if you are to enrich, for example, the mandate of the broadcasting arbitrator. There may be stand-alone legislation as an alternative option.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Right. I have 30 seconds left, so I'll ask another question here. You used the electoral boundaries redistribution model and the commissions that are set up as a potential model. The question that occurred to me was, either we have a commissioner who is paid full time to mostly do nothing, or else we have a job that's episodic.

I personally wouldn't want that job. Everybody's going to hate you, you don't get paid very much, and it's only episodic. The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act had similar problems, and they've been overcome somehow. Do you have any insight as to how one would deal with that?

12:40 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

The broadcasting arbitrator is episodic in the same way, so he's not paid full time. He's paid on a per diem basis. A similar model could be used here.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Thank you. That's very helpful.

12:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you, Mr. Reid.

It is now Mr. Christopherson's turn.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thanks, Chair.

I agree with Mr. Reid. You gave an excellent presentation, Mr. Perrault. At the risk of getting a civics lesson in public, which is probably what's about to happen, I have to say, just for my own benefit—bear with me—you stated in your remarks, “Some have suggested that Elections Canada should have a role to play in this area.... I strongly believe that Elections Canada must be insulated from any decision-making regarding the leaders' debates so as to remain above the fray.”

My difficulty is that I have trouble distinguishing the role that would be played here versus the role that the Chief Electoral Officer is already playing, where we're asking him to be fair-minded. There are an awful lot of decisions that are taken by the CEO where people could get angry and say, “Well, that's not right. You're screwing us. It's clear this is rigged.” Yet you're suggesting that this particular aspect is so refined in its need to be pure that even you dare not go there.

Help me understand why you feel you can't stay above the fray when I'm looking at other areas where you're in the midst of the fray.

12:45 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

Essentially, because the debates get into the choice of substantive issues, and who gets to present and in what order, and who sits between who, and who is asking the questions and how they're being asked, all these issues are deeply within the hot issues of the campaign. We all know that leaders’ debates can in some cases be a game-changer in a campaign. I can hardly see the Chief Electoral Officer being part of that game-changing moment in the campaign.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

I've heard others give the same opinion. I guess this is one of those times where we find ourselves thinking we're the only ones in the whole army marching wrong. I accept that's probably the prevailing view. I just can't get there. If I have to worry about the decisions that you might impact in this area, it would lead me immediately to think maybe I need to worry about some of the others, but I think you're talking about the scale of the impact and the cut and thrust of the election versus the framework you do. Anyway the civics lesson is concluded; I hear where you're coming from.

I was one of those saying “Elections Canada” or “a stand-alone” just because it made common sense to me. I'm pleased to see that you have suggested at least one role where it would be embedded, but you'd be removed from that decision-making. Again the whole idea of the cost factor, the idea of creating a whole bureaucracy to exist and remain idling for three and a half years doesn't make a lot of sense, and re-creating it from scratch every time, as often as Mr. Reid has noted, is not always the best approach.

I'm warming to one of the options that you presented, the broadcasting arbitrator. Talk to me a little more about how you'd see this working within the confines of your shop but allowing it to remain independent. Help me understand this a bit more.

12:45 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

To be frank I have not worked out all the details of this. I can certainly say that the way it works right now with the arbitrator, as it is with the boundaries commission, is that he does his own thing. He's the one who convenes the parties for example to allocate the broadcast time for the election. We provide administrative support for his work, and the same is true of the electoral boundaries commission. It is a flexible mechanism because at any point they can decide to convene a meeting, and we would provide the support for that, but we would not be the ones making the decisions.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Right, and I'll tell you the ways I'm warming to it. I like the environment. As they're making the decisions, the people around them in their workplace are all geared to free, fair, transparency.... I'm warming to that one and will be looking for those who could argue that it's a bad idea, and that I ought to take that in mind.

Can you tell me a bit more again exactly what the broadcasting arbitrator does?

12:45 p.m.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Stéphane Perrault

His main role is very limited, but it's a role that can be critical during an election. He does two things. First, he applies a formula in the act for the allocation of free and paid time. That formula is in the act. A recommendation was made to this committee to review that and perhaps at some point you'll get to that.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

It's deep in the weeds these days, I have to tell you.