Canada’s independent elections watchdog wants no part in organizing leaders’ debates during federal elections.
Elections Canada should not be involved in anything that could be seen as influencing the outcome of a campaign, acting chief electoral officer Stephane Perrault told a House of Commons committee Thursday.
“I strongly believe that Elections Canada must be insulated from any decision-making regarding leaders’ debates so as to remain above the fray,” he said.
“Debates are an important element of the campaign and often contribute to defining the ballot-box issues … 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.”
The committee is examining the idea of appointing an independent commission or commissioner to organize televised leaders’ debates during federal election campaigns, as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 campaign.
The debates became the subject of heated controversy in the last campaign after the then-ruling Conservatives signalled that Stephen Harper would not take part in the traditional two televised events — one English, one French — organized by a consortium of the country’s major TV networks.
In the end, Harper and the other leaders took part in 5 debates organized by various media and social media outlets, including Maclean’s magazine, the Globe and Mail, Google and Facebook, as well as a consortium-organized French debate and another organized by Quebec’s TVA network.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May was invited to participate in just two of the five debates while Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe was invited strictly to the two French ones.
If the government opts to create an independent commission, Perrault said it should set out clear criteria as to which party leaders are to be allowed to participate in debates, leaving the commission itself little or no discretion in the matter.
“This question has given rise to significant controversy over the years. An independent commission should not be mired in controversies regarding inclusion, especially in the middle of a campaign.”
Perrault also warned that the exclusion of smaller parties in future might run afoul of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.