It’s hard to imagine Canadians could be headed into yet another federal election, but plans announced Monday by the federal Conservatives as they prepare for their leadership race suggest they expect their new leader to be ready to hit the ground running for the polls.
The leadership election organizing committee has raised the fundraising bar for entering the race to $200,000 (up from $100,000) and requires 3,000 endorsement signatures from Conservative party members in 30 ridings across seven provinces. All of that needs to be done by March 25.
What this means is that only those who are clear frontrunners will be able to meet that high threshold in a 45-day span in order to get their names on the ballot for the June 27 decision in Toronto.
Don’t expect to see 14 candidates running this time; this is going to be a race with only proven contenders. All signs point to an early election.
Also on Monday, in a downtown Ottawa hotel, academics, journalists and researchers met with the Leaders Debate Commission to parse the 2019 debate and to look to the future.
Perhaps knowing an election could happen sooner rather than later made this discussion a bit more compelling.
The commission came into being in 2018, when the federal government announced its creation in a bid to make debates a more predictable, stable and reliable element of federal election campaigns. For years, leaders’ debates were traditionally organized by a consortium of broadcast media, both private and public, which willingly gave up prime-time real estate to allow party leaders to duke it out on public policy issues in a bid to prove who was the best person to lead the country.
But this changed in 2015 when the Conservative party, under prime minister Stephen Harper, refused to participate in consortium-organized debates and instead opted for five independently staged debates. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair followed suit by suggesting he, too, would not participate and, as a result, the English-language television debate was cancelled (the French-language debate did go ahead).
For the first time since 1968, there was no national televised debate in English in 2015 — a development many saw as a loss to democracy. The commission’s executive director, Michel Cormier, said, "The government concluded after 2015 that you couldn’t leave the production of a leaders’ debate to chance."
At Monday’s meeting in Ottawa, the roundtable participants sat with Cormier and commissioner David Johnston, the amiable former governor-general, to look at the how the debate in 2019 fared. A report will be made to Parliament by early March, with a recommendation on whether the commission should continue for the next election.
How successful was the leaders’ debate? Cormier is enthusiastic in his answer: "Twenty million people watched both debates, which is unprecedented, and we know we had engagement as well on social platforms; it was translated into 12 different languages, including sign language, and it was the most popular event on social media. It was clear that it was an opportunity to unite people."
Despite Cormier’s enthusiasm, there are many who were critical of the English-language debate format, which featured six party leaders and five debate moderators. For some, it was a disaster, with too many candidates, weak moderators and far too few opportunities for real discussion.
However, this concern was outside the debate commission’s mandate and instead was left up to the Canadian Debate Production Partnership, a consortium of English- and French-language media producers that includes traditional and online media.
This may well be something the debate commission will have to consider if it continues in the next election. Should it also control the format of the debates? For example, in the United States, the Commission on Presidential Debates organizes and produces presidential debates. The format of these debates is established by that commission.
For his part, Cormier says Canada’s commission has been taking advice from other countries to help determine how it organizes leaders’ debates here, because Canada is "the new kid on the block."
"We are comparing notes with the American presidential system and have talked with Washington’s National Democratic Institute. We are getting information from Jamaica, Mexico, South America and Eastern Europe. We are grappling with providing a format that is engaging for candidates, as well as compelling and useful for voters. How do we make it work?"
There was also a component of civic literacy involved in 2018, which Cormier says could continue in the future. The commission worked with two non-partisan organizations aimed at raising awareness for youth: Civix and Apathy is Boring.
Despite the engagement efforts, Canada’s voter turnout did not increase. In fact, it went down to around 66 per cent, after a jump to 68 per cent in 2015. Voter apathy reaches beyond availability of information, it would seem.
Should Canada continue along the path of having a non-partisan commission tasked with organizing and orchestrating national debates during its federal elections? It only makes sense. As Cormier suggests, these things are just too important to be left to randomness.
» Shannon Sampert is a retired political scientist and a media consultant with her company Media Diva.