Evidence of meeting #86 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

Catherine Kumar  Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission
Angella Persad  Immediate Past Chair, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission
Noel daCosta  Chairman, Jamaica Debates Commission
Trevor Fearon  Resource Consultant, Jamaica Debates Commission

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

Thank you for joining us. I'm surprised you didn't want to make the trip here rather than appear by video conference. You could experience our wonderful weather here. We're -12° Celsius. I'm sure you would enjoy it.

11:20 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

No. We will send you some sun instead.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

Okay. That would be great.

I have a couple of questions for you. You had mentioned in your opening remarks that, in the process of forming the commission, you hadn't consulted with politicians or with the public. You obviously acknowledged you felt that was probably something you would do differently if you could do it again, particularly with regard to the public.

I was just curious as to whether that was a conscious decision at the time to not do that consultation with politicians and/or with the public, or was that just an oversight at the time?

11:25 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

It was really a timing issue because we started the interim committee in 2009, and then when the snap election was called in 2010 we were still at the interim committee stage. We had not at that time formulated fully how we would go forward and what we would do.

Literally in five weeks or so we had to register the commission, do everything, start organizing the debate. I certainly believe that if we had gone about it in a normal way, we would have gotten other people involved. Again, as I said, it was the chamber's initiative. In one of the chambers we have operating, it's always to get views from other stakeholders and get their input. The timing really hurt us there. It did impact us going forward.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

In terms of lessons for us, advice for us, when this committee makes a decision about what it's going to recommend as to what this would look like going forward, would you suggest that, rather than just moving immediately to try to legislate or put that decision in place, it should be put before the people? In other words, should they be asked their opinion about that particular decision and consulted on it at that point in time? Would those be your thoughts as to good advice for us?

11:25 a.m.

Immediate Past Chair, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Angella Persad

I think that would definitely be something that should be done, to poll the views of different segments of the public. Obviously at the end of the day a decision needs to be made because you will get some people thinking debates are very important and others thinking they are not. I think getting the views of the public, what they want to hear in a debate and why they think a debate is important, will be a very useful exercise.

January 30th, 2018 / 11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

You had mentioned the independence of the commission and how it's very important that it not only be independent but that it be perceived to be independent, that it appear to have independence. Often in Canada these types of appointments are made by the prime minister, who's obviously the representative of one political party. That might therefore give the appearance that it's not necessarily independent from one political party because of the fact that the commissioner would be appointed by that prime minister.

I 'm curious about your thoughts on whether we need to be looking at that and finding a way to ensure that either all parties have a say in who that commissioner is or this committee maybe or some body other than just the prime minister is making that appointment. Would your thoughts be that, to give us the proper appearance of independence, that would be important?

11:25 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

In Trinidad and Tobago, our debates commission does not have the involvement of the government at all, because we have been set up independent of the government. Certainly the Jamaica experience would have been the same thing.

We find in Trinidad that where we have commissions—we have lots of different commissions, like the police service commission—they are always viewed as being political because, as you said, the prime minister makes a recommendation to the president and then the president sets up the commission or commissioner. Therefore our suggestion would be really and truly that the appointment not be part of the government but the committee having come up with what is the best.... I know I said you ought to engage the public also so that the set-up is truly independent, not being named by the prime minister or recommended by the prime minister. I'm not too familiar with your context as to whether there are any other independent bodies that could help in setting up such a commission.

I would also say that in the Commonwealth the word “commission” connotes something, the deals of government. There is also something that has been put to us. Would we like to consider changing our name to “Trinidad and Tobago Debates something else”, not commission, because once they hear “commission” people think it is a government set-up?

11:30 a.m.

Immediate Past Chair, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Angella Persad

To add to that, in forming our commission we looked at different representative interests. For instance we looked at legal, communication, civic society, business, and citizen representation for Tobago. We looked at the different representative interests to make sure that we had independent people representing each one of those interests.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

Okay. Obviously you're strongly of the opinion that it needs to be independent and not be appointed by the government directly.

So that I completely understand, you said that the chamber at least began discussions about this, but you mentioned that you made the decision not to have it fund the commission. Who does fund the commission?

11:30 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

Corporate T & T funds it totally. From the very first debate in 2010, even the debate that did not come off, corporate T & T funded us. The chamber would have been involved with in-kind funding—human resources and those sorts of things, facilities—but the actual cost of the debates is funded totally by corporate T & T, and it has been for all our debates so far.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

Okay, great. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

11:30 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

Going forward, that is also a difficulty. We need to have funding that we can rely on, so not every debate you have to go to corporate T & T and literally put your hands out and beg. We are in the process of looking for international funding from some of these other institutions that support democracy and so on. Perhaps if anyone around the committee is aware of institutions that we can approach, I'd be happy to hear about it through Andrew.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

Always looking for ways, eh? Thank you.

Maybe if you send some of your sunshine our way, who knows what could happen.

11:30 a.m.

Immediate Past Chair, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Angella Persad

I just wanted to add one point on the funding. There is no branding for corporate T & T when they fund the debate, so they get no acknowledgement, no branding at all. This was their return to building democracy in the country.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Conservative Banff—Airdrie, AB

Okay, great. Thank you all very much.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Larry Bagnell

Thank you all very much.

Now we'll move on to Mr. Christopherson.

11:30 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you very much, Chair.

Thank you very much for taking the time. We really appreciate this.

I'll just do a little bit of shifting gears. One of the issues that a lot of presenters have taken time to focus on is the role of social media in these debates and how different the world is in terms of communicating with the public.

How did you approach the issue of social media when you were considering your outreach capacity?

11:30 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

We did include social media, but we did not include it sufficiently, recognizing that it is in fact a very important media, particularly if you want to get to youth.

We have a website. Right now it's under reconstruction, because we are doing the strategic plan, and there are quite a few changes that we are going to have. We have a Facebook page. We did visit, for instance, the secondary schools, and we had a competition going for involvement, having people put their post and write their comments, etc. on Facebook, and through that get some feedback. We had a competition. Whoever had the most questions put forward would win a prize. That helped us a bit because we got quite a few comments coming in through there, and I think we got a certain amount of youth involvement, too, but certainly not enough.

Going forward in our new strategic plan, we have recognized that we cannot only rely on the mainstream media that we are familiar with, but we have to get this new media involved. We are even thinking, as of yesterday—we had a meeting—that it would be good to bring on a commissioner who was very much inclined to understand the use of social media, how it can help us, how we measure what value we get out of it, and what sorts of programs we can set up.

Definitely anybody going forward must consider social media.

I say Facebook, but of course, you're not only talking Facebook, you're talking about all the other new social media programs outside.

11:30 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

That's certainly what we're finding.

You also mentioned that, going forward, you want to not only be involved during the election in terms of the debate, but you also want some involvement post-election, and you also mentioned pre-election. I'm interested in what kinds of thoughts you have about the commission and its role in any pre-election activities.

11:35 a.m.

Immediate Past Chair, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Angella Persad

What we are thinking is that, through the moderators and researchers, through the university and our alignment with the university, we can actually.... The right issues will be researched. So you could influence politics, you could influence democracy by having the right issues being discussed at the debate.

The pre-election involvement would really be to identify the right issues to be discussed and to have debates on those issues even before the actual general election. For instance, right now we don't have a fixed term.

11:35 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

That's one of the things we think that we could easily have debated prior to the elections, whether we should have a fixed term for governance and things like that, campaign financing. All things that are relevant to what the party would bring, but bring it all from before. It's a way for us of getting the debates commission accepted as a household name, knowing that we can do debates, and we will have a debate.

11:35 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Thank you for your comprehensive answers.

There's another area. This may be as much a political/cultural difference. I found it interesting when you talked about ensuring the independence of the commission, and therefore, under the old adage of he who pays the piper calls the tune, you go out of your way to ensure there's no government money. You are looking to the corporate side to ensure that independence.

I have to tell you that many of us here in Canada would see it the other way around. We look at public funding as the neutral dollars, and at the private sector—whether they're NGOs on the progressive left or, on the right, corporations making billions of dollars—as having a political agenda, so we go out of our way to make sure they don't have any money.... Public funding is the way we look at it to ensure there is fairness.

Obviously the government of the day holds the purse strings; for instance, our Elections Canada is funded by the public purse. No one believes that just because it's the government that sets the budget they get to decide how that commission runs. That is dictated by other legislation and other regulations.

Just as a matter of curiosity, could you tease out for me how your view is so completely different from ours and why there's this fear, almost—those are my words—at having public money in any way because that begins the tainting process?

11:35 a.m.

Interim Chief Executive Officer, Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission

Catherine Kumar

Yes, I think you've probably hit the nail on the head: it's a little different with the culture and the Trinidadian people. Again, because the debates commission is not legislated in any way, you will have a particular politician say, “Yes, I support your debates commission and I'm willing to fund the debates commission.” Unless we get something legislated, where from government to government it doesn't matter who is ruling at that time, and it specifies some parameters around the funding so that we would know it would always be there—and again, that it's not partisan—then it becomes very difficult.

In a previous debate, the party in power actually said that they were willing to fund, but they would have said they were willing to fund out of a budget that was probably already allocated to something else. We felt that would certainly lead to bias.

On corporate entities, there is a discussion going on right now about that: how independent are you if corporate entities are funding? You are right, one corporation is aligned to one party and another one to another party. To get around that, because you kind of know which corporations are loyal to which parties, we ensured the widest possible participation by the corporates, so that on both sides of these two major political parties, contributions were made by corporates. It's just getting that breadth that allows us to feel independent, but again, because that is not the best way, it's the other reason why we continue to say that we have to find funding elsewhere. We are looking at international funding.

In the longer term—because it takes a long while to get legislation in Trinidad—there is the hope that eventually we could get the entire master legislation that says they have to debate and they have to provide the funding. In our legislation, we don't even have any substantial funding for political parties' campaigns. It is so small that you probably couldn't even buy a jersey, so really and truly, they also rely on corporations for their funding, which comes right back to the question again: obviously, certain corporations are loyal to certain parties.

11:40 a.m.

NDP

David Christopherson NDP Hamilton Centre, ON

Very good. Thank you so much for your time and your answers.