Debate commissioner sets new criteria for an invite — and hey they make sense

David Johnston replaces 2019's vague criteria with something more concrete

First off, thanks to everyone who took the plunge and subscribed yesterday. I’m overwhelmed with the positive support — and I’m going to work hard to live up to your vote of confidence!

So, let’s get right into the weeds on Day 2.

Yesterday, the Leaders’ Debates Commissioner David Johnston set out the new criteria for participation in the next federal leaders’ debates. Here they are, and I quote:

  • (i): on the date the general election is called, the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party; or

  • (ii): the party's candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least 4% of the number of valid votes cast; or

  • (iii): five days after the date the general election is called, the party receives a level of national support of at least 4%, determined by voting intention, and as measured by leading national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recently publicly-reported results.  

To summarize, you need to have elected an MP under your party banner, or received at least 4% of the votes in the last election or have at least 4% support in the polls in the first week of the campaign.

These are good criteria. At least, they are better than the ones used in 2019.

Johnston was saddled with the criteria that was given to him in the order-in-council that created the commission. That criteria was vague enough that Johnston had to explain his “interpretation” of it (never a good sign).

The old criteria made participation dependent on meeting any two of the following three:

  • having an MP elected under the party banner;

  • an intention to run candidates in at least 90% of ridings;

  • having received 4% of the vote in the last election or, and this was key, “based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results, the Debates Commissioner considers that candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question.”

That last one was the sticking point. It introduced a subjective decision on the part of the commissioner in what was supposed to be an objective set of criteria.

What, in the end, represents a “legitimate chance”? The commissioner interpreted the “recent political context” as anything from polling to fundraising to the zeitgeist to media presence to party memberships and more. So, pretty much everything.

And what about that word “candidates”? Does it mean at least one, or more than one?

The commissioner decided, and explained in painstaking detail, that it was plural:

"In interpreting the phrase “candidates endorsed by the party”, the Commission, in accordance with principles of statutory interpretation, considered the words of the OIC in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the OIC, the object of the OIC, and the intention of the OIC. The Commission concludes that the word “candidates” in the context of the OIC should be interpreted as plural.”

That’s a lot of fancy words to explain the significance of the letter “s”.

In the end, it came down to whether or not Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party, should be invited. The Liberals, Conservatives and NDP met all three criteria. The Bloc Québécois and Greens each met two, with the Bloc having elected MPs and earned more than 4% of the vote in the previous election in 2015, while the Greens elected an MP and was going to run candidates in at least 90% of ridings.

The People’s Party never elected an MP under their party banner — Bernier was elected as a Conservative before setting up his new party in 2018 — and didn’t exist in the previous election to earn 4% of the vote, but it was going to run candidates in at least 90% of Canada’s 338 ridings (in the end they had 315, or a 93% slate).

The question was whether or not the People’s Party could elect multiple candidates. Bernier had a legitimate chance of being re-elected in his own riding of Beauce, but could anyone else win? Johnston commissioned polls in a few target PPC ridings and concluded from the results that the party did have a legitimate chance of winning at least one of them (an interpretation of the polling data I did not share at the time).

So, Bernier was in.

But he probably won’t be there next time.

Who’s in and who’s out, this time

Let’s go through the new criteria.

Parties need to have an MP elected under their banner. That means the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc all get a spot.

The 4% threshold in the last election would also earn those five parties a spot, but no others. The PPC took just 1.6% of the vote in 2019.

The 4% threshold in the polls is possibly achievable for the PPC, but that would be tough. The party has never consistently achieved that level of support in the polls. A few individual polls have put the PPC at or above 4%, but (smartly) the commission is going to be using an average of polls.

This is similar to what is done in the United States for their presidential debates. There, a threshold of 15% support recorded by pollsters selected by the U.S. debates commission is used. There was some question whether Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson would reach that threshold in 2016, but he had trouble getting much higher than 10% (and came nowhere near to matching even that on election day).

David Johnston might be wise to publicly lay out which polling firms he will use to base his decision upon ahead of time, as is done in the U.S., to avoid any accusations of cherry-picking polls.

But, overall, this makes a lot of sense. These are simple, objective criteria that could be employed in future elections. (And that is a pretty important point: the commission can’t keep changing its criteria from one election to the next — it should choose a set and stick with it for the long haul.)

This criteria also would have worked well in past elections to include new up-and-coming parties. In 1993, the Reform Party would have qualified thanks to the election of Deborah Grey under the Reform banner in a 1989 byelection, while the Bloc was (like Reform) polling above 4% in the first week of the 1993 campaign.

(Gilles Duceppe won a byelection in 1990, but was officially an independent at the time of his victory, so that would not have met the bar.)

The Greens would have been in every debate since at least the 2005-06 campaign, since they received more than 4% of the vote in 2004 and elected an MP in the two elections (2011 and 2015) in which they did not hit the 4% threshold. They might have even qualified under Jim Harris in 2004, as the party was polling in the 4% to 5% range, at least when it was included in surveys.

The People’s Party would not have qualified in 2019 under this new criteria and, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say they should not have qualified even under the previous criteria since no other candidate aside from Bernier came close to being elected.

But would these criteria have created any weird situations in the past?

Not really. A non-major party hasn’t earned 4% of the vote or elected an MP since both the Bloc populaire and the Labor-Progressives did it in 1945 (if we exclude Social Credit, which last hit these thresholds in 1979, or ignore the various labels like Liberal-Labour or Liberal-Progressive adopted by some MPs in mid-20th century elections).

In the context of modern Canadian political history, these are threshold that are hard to meet — but not too hard if a party is a legitimate emerging force.

What does it mean for the upcoming debates? Well, the PPC needs to see its poll numbers improve significantly if Bernier is going to get another invitation.

The Maverick Party will also need to start putting up some serious numbers (and I’m talking 25% or more) in Alberta and Saskatchewan to reach the 4% national polling threshold.

One could argue over whether the debates commission should exist at all or if these thresholds should be set even higher in order to limit participation to only those parties that are in serious contention to form government. (In fact, why don’t you debate it in the subscribers-only comments below!)

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I generally think we shouldn’t presume what the results will be. If we’re being honest, only the Liberals and Conservatives have a real shot at forming government in the next election. But, there’s still a chance they won’t — maybe the NDP catches fire, in a good way — and, as we’ve since since 2019, a minority government means a small party can play a bigger role. It’s probably not a bad idea for voters to have an idea what those parties might do with that influence.

Nevertheless, it does make sense to set the bar somewhere. A debate with every leader of a registered party (there are currently 19!) might be democratic, but it wouldn’t be particularly watchable. This is a step in the right direction.