Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It is my pleasure to assist the committee in its study of the creation of an independent commission responsible for leaders' debates.
I have been following the proceedings of the committee and am pleased to provide input from the perspective of Elections Canada. My remarks will briefly touch on the objectives that, in my view, should inform the creation of an independent commission, or commissioner, for regulating leaders' debates. I will also outline a number of considerations respecting how such an entity could be structured and function, should the committee choose to recommend one.
There are several models internationally for leaders' debates, including regulation through an independent public commission. But, before looking at a particular design, it is important, in my view, to look at the objectives that may lead this committee to recommend the creation of a commission and that, if it does, may determine the mandate and certain features of the commission's structure.
For my part, I would suggest the following three objectives that directly contribute to a fair and open electoral process. Clearly, these concerns are my own.
First, debates should be organized in a manner that is fair, non-partisan and transparent.
Second, debates should be broadly accessible to the public. For example, they should be presented in a format that is available to the largest possible audience, including persons with disabilities.
Third, debates should contribute to informing the electorate of the range of political options they have to choose from.
There are three considerations to be taken into account in establishing an independent commission, or a commissioner. First, there is the matter of the criteria for inclusion in the debates. You know that one of the most important and contentious issues with regard to leaders' debates is who is included. Everyone is aware that this question has given rise to significant controversy over the years. In my view, an independent commission should not be mired in controversies regarding inclusion, especially in the middle of an election campaign. For that reason, the criteria for inclusion in the debates must be clear, and should allow for no or very little residual discretion by the commission. The criteria may allow for a range of factors. I know that, last week, witnesses came before the committee to talk about a range of factors. I am specifically thinking about Mr. Fox, who talked about a basket of criteria. The criteria could allow for a good deal of flexibility, for example, to allow for the participation of emerging parties.
But the criteria should be such that their application by the commission should be straightforward, if not mechanical. It is important to keep in mind that, to date, challenges to leaders' debates under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms have failed on the basis that they were essentially private events not subject to charter scrutiny.
If a commission were created to regulate the debates. and more specifically participation in the debates, the commission would be subject to the Canadian charter without doubt.
I recognize that it is difficult to draw the line regarded regarding inclusion in leaders' debates. For this very reason, I feel that it is important for parliamentarians to establish the appropriate criteria rather than the commission. I feel that the commission must apply criteria that are flexible, but that provide no room for discretion.
The second point regards the format and content of debates. While I believe the criteria for inclusion should leave little to no discretion to a commission, I see no reason that it could not have broad latitude in shaping the format and editorial aspects of the debates, subject only to the overarching objectives that I highlighted at the beginning of my remarks.
In terms of the format, as we know, the media landscape is in constant evolution, in particular with respect to social media. The commission should have the latitude to adjust with the industry and to take advantage of the opportunities.
In deciding the format, however, the equality of French and English must be respected and promoted. The broadcasting of the debates should also ensure access for people with disabilities. This means providing closed-captioning, sign language, accessible web design, or other means of facilitating access for persons with specific disabilities.
In dealing with both the content and format of the debates, an independent commission or commissioner could be required to receive input from participants and other stakeholders. It could also, and I believe this is important, be required to report to Parliament after the election to ensure transparency in its decision-making.
The final consideration is the structure of an independent commission. Obviously, the committee will need to consider the leadership and membership of a commission. Certainly the chair and members of a commission, should there be additional members, need to have the knowledge and expertise to organize debates. They could include representatives of the traditional networks as well as representatives of new media, appointed through a formula that prevents partisanship. They could also include representatives of civil society groups. If the chosen model was that of a single commissioner, he or she could consult with civil society groups and other stakeholders or set up an advisory committee to assist him or her in making decisions.
Some have suggested that Elections Canada should have a role to play in this area. With due respect, I disagree. I strongly believe that Elections Canada must be insulated from any decision-making regarding the leaders' debates so as to remain above the fray.
Debates are an important element of the campaign and often contribute to defining the ballot box issues. This is what makes the debates exciting and important. The Chief Electoral Officer should not be involved in matters that could be perceived as having an influence on the orientation of the campaign or the results of the election.
That being said, you may wish to consider a broadcasting arbitrator in establishing a commissioner or an independent commission. As you know, the arbitrator is an independent office-holder under the Canada Elections Act. He is appointed by unanimous consent of the parties in the House of Commons, or if there is no consent, by the Chief Electoral Officer after consultation with the parties. For example, the broadcasting arbitrator could be appointed as the chair of the commission to play essentially a facilitating role in convening the commission and ensuring that it functions properly, or instead, the model of the arbitrator could be emulated in the establishment of either a new commission or commissioner.
Finally, the nature of the commission's mandate may not necessitate an ongoing entity. Its activities will likely be sporadic and its meetings ad hoc. For example, most of the editorial decisions may be made in the lead-up to or during the campaign.
Elections Canada could certainly provide administrative support for an independent commission, including the payment of the commission's expenses. This is the model that is currently followed for the broadcasting arbitrator. It is also the model followed for the electoral boundaries commissions, which work independently from Elections Canada. It's a flexible and effective model that allows the commission to function with some basic administrative support without implicating Elections Canada in the decisions themselves.
Mr. Chair, I've set out a number of considerations that I hope will be helpful to the committee. I would be happy to answer any questions that committee members may have.