Submission of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada to the Leaders' Debates Commission

The Leaders' Debates Commission (the "Commission") is mandated by Order-in-Council to organize two leaders' debates -- one in French and one in English -- for the next federal general election. It is currently engaged in a consultation process "with stakeholders to determine the participation criteria." The Commission wrote to invite "the leaders of all registered and eligible political parties to provide submissions to the Commission on what the participation criteria should be for a leader to be eligible to participate in the leaders' debates organized by the Commission during the next federal general election."

We are publishing below the submission of Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada National Leader Anna Di Carlo.

March 15, 2021

The Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada (MLPC) welcomes the opportunity to submit its views on how eligibility criteria are determined for the televised federal leaders' debates.

The February 23 invitation letter from the Leaders' Debates Commission (the Commission) informs us that the Liberal Government has handed over the authority to set the criteria for debate inclusion to the Commission. To this end, the Liberals amended Order-in-Council PC 2018-1322. As the Commission stated in Democracy Matters, Debates Count: A report on the 2019 Leaders' Debates Commission and the future of debates in Canada, there was a consistent concern that "the Government of the day is ill-placed to set participation criteria for leaders' debates, given the perception of a conflict of interest caused by the Prime Minister's future participation in the debates." The amended Order-in-Council is said to correct this impropriety of the ruling party deciding who should be heard during an election.

The aim of the Commission, as announced in the 2018 federal budget, was to "ensure that federal leaders' debates are organized in the public interest and to improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders and their policy positions." The Commission was to ensure that "twisting the rules for political advantage" and "partisan gamesmanship," would be eliminated.

Far from creating a Commission enabled to do this, Order-in-Council PC 2018-1322 set out criteria to ensure exclusionary debates. Three criteria were predetermined, with a party having to meet at least two of them: 1) a party must already be represented in the House of Commons, and 2) it must intend to field candidates in 90 per cent of the ridings; and 3) its candidates must have received at least 4 per cent of the valid votes in the most recent election. The third criterion also stated that if a party fails to meet two of the three criteria, the Debates Commissioner can determine that it might have "a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question," using polling and other methods, as was done for the People's Party of Canada in the 2019 election.

Through this selection process, fifteen out of the 21 registered parties were excluded in 2019.

Conundrum Facing the Debates' Commission

We are informed that the purpose of this consultation is to give rise to an independent and impartial determination of the criteria, free of government influence or interference. However, the Commission begins its invitation letter by quoting its foundational mandate which remains unamended. In particular, the first preamble to the need for the Commission states: "Whereas it is desirable that leaders' debates be effective, informative and compelling and benefit from the participation of the leaders who have the greatest likelihood of becoming Prime Minister or whose political parties have the greatest likelihood of winning seats in Parliament."

Maintaining this preamble makes a mockery of the claim that the Commission is now independent and impartial. This is because it preserves the overarching anti-democratic criterion that leads to exclusion and violates the right of citizens to cast an informed vote.

Section 4 of the original Order-in-Council is also retained. It states that "the Leaders' Debates Commission is to be guided by the pursuit of the public interest and by the principles of independence, impartiality, credibility, democratic citizenship, civic education, inclusion and cost-effectiveness."

The Commission itself seems to have viewed the preamble and Section 4 as posing a conundrum. In its Report, it states: "These two objectives, one narrowly aimed at the most likely Prime Minister and the other reflecting broader inclusiveness and a range of views, are somewhat at odds. A focus on the former would suggest a smaller slate of debate participants, perhaps as small as two or three in the Canadian context. A focus on the latter would broaden the stage to include as many as five or six leaders."

Posing the conundrum as one between selecting a scheme which permits "two or three" leaders versus "five or six" diverts attention from the fact that both are based on exclusionary and thus anti-democratic criteria. Neither the preamble nor the guiding principles recognize the right to an informed vote.

Even the inclusion of the term "democratic citizenship" as a principle is worrisome. The Commission does not explain what is meant by "democratic citizenship" nor does it discuss what it thinks are the democratic rights conferred by citizenship. By definition, a modern conception of citizenship recognizes all citizens as equal members of a body politic who enjoy equal rights, including the right to cast an informed vote. The addition of the adjective "democratic" implies that there is possibly another specific form of citizenship perhaps defined in another way. What the Commission does say is that debates "provide a focal point for campaigns that can enable democratic citizenship. This includes, but is not limited to, allowing citizens to influence the election agenda; to learn about the candidates, their parties and their platforms; to participate in political discussion; and to feel capable of participating in the electoral process."

The process by which citizens are supposed to be allowed to do all these things is not controlled by them. We are back to the conundrum once again which is who decides what is good for the citizens and on the basis of what criterion. In fact, the experience with the leaders' debates in Canada is that they are a mechanism to impose on the electorate matters that are pre-determined to be "the issues" by the "independent" media consortium and a handful of advisors.

Taking into account all the Commission-related documents, from its announcement in the 2018 budget, to the Order-in-Council, to the Report of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee giving its support to the Commission's formation, through to the Commission's post-debate report, we find only a single reference to "an informed vote." Referring to the 2019 debates, the Commission's Report asserts: "These debates counted. They were key moments that helped Canadians cast informed votes. In an era of concern about our institutions and the health of democracy itself, that is a harbinger of hope."

Readers could be forgiven if they were to think that the principle of "inclusion" is indeed in contradiction with the exclusionary preamble in the Commission's mandate. The guideline of inclusion refers to viewership only. In its Report, the Commission concludes, "On measures of inclusion, our findings are mixed. We find lower reported awareness of the debates (in the days leading up to the debates) among disabled, non-European, and rural Canadians, as well as among younger individuals."

This categorization of citizens into identities called "disabled, non-European, and rural Canadians" and the concoction of a concern about whether or not they were aware of the debates not only shows that the conception is limited to viewership, it also shows the extent to which the Commission seeks to divert from the issue at hand -- the de facto political exclusion and marginalization of the vast majority of Canadians. This will remain the case so long as all of the elements that inform the Commission entail the exclusion of the majority of parties from the debates thereby not informing Canadians about them let alone enabling them to participate in discussion about what they stand for.

The aim of the Commission should not be to justify political exclusion and marginalization of citizens in the name of "the principles of independence, impartiality, credibility, democratic citizenship, civic education, inclusion and cost-effectiveness." It should be to enable the citizenry to cast an informed vote by upholding the fundamental democratic principle of equality -- whether we speak of parties or candidates or citizens.

Completely avoided in all of the Commission's deliberations is the fact that the entire scheme continues the second-class treatment of independent candidates who, like the majority of political parties, are not given even token recognition.

Inclusion Criteria

So long as there is to be a national debate of party leaders, the only criteria that should be used for inclusion in the debates are the criteria set out in the Canada Elections Act for party registration. Specifically, a political party becomes registered upon fielding at least one candidate either in a by-election or a federal election after it has submitted the names of 250 members to Elections Canada. It must have an official agent and an executive body, and it must affirm that one of the party's fundamental purposes is "to participate in public affairs by endorsing one or more of its members as candidates and supporting their election."

Unless the criteria for registration in the Canada Elections Act is changed, a registered political party is a registered political party and the democratic principle of equality should apply. No other criteria or judgment about the worthiness of a political party can be justified if it is to be seen to be democratic.

If the ruling elites of Canada want to have a system in which only political parties and candidates that they determine have a "chance at winning" should be recognized, they should perhaps amend the Canada Elections Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms accordingly. For instance, party registration could be made to require proof that the party has a "likelihood of winning seats in Parliament."

Similarly, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms could be amended. Currently it reads: "Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein." It should more appropriately read: "Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and every citizen that the state determines has a likelihood of winning a seat in Parliament has the right to be qualified for membership therein."

Of course, this creates another conundrum. Is it the election which determines who will win? Or is it the cartel formed by the parties with seats in the House of Commons, their think-tanks, polling firms, media, and even the banks who lend the cartel parties money based on repayment risk-assessments by all of the prior institutions as to their "chance at winning." This would also require an impartial examination to determine whether the polling firms are neutral and whether the questions they ask are appropriate.

In the absence of such an inquiry whose purpose is to seek truth from facts, it appears that the same elites who take all the decisions about what is good for Canadians on the basis of the same exclusionary outlook which guides this Commission are also the ones who establish the polling firms, hire the polling firms, and decide and fashion the questions. Hence the Commission's conundrum.

The greatest diversion in which the Commission is engaged is to say that by taking the decision on who should be included in leaders' debates out of the hands of the Prime Minister and his office, the perception of conflict of interest has been eliminated. How now will the Commission divert attention from the perception of their own self-interest in perpetuating the most exclusionary, elitist criteria in the name of democratic citizenship and inclusion?

To answer their conundrum the Commission would have to acknowledge the need for the democratic renewal of the electoral process so that it is not based on privileges and it is not designed to bring political parties to power but, on the contrary, enables the empowerment of the people. Until that is done, the amendments the MLPC has proposed to bring the Canada Elections Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into conformity with the reality of Canada's current electoral process would at least eliminate the blatant hypocrisy between the proclaimed Charter rights and their limitations which are said not only to be "reasonable" but "democratic."

It is par for the course by those who enjoy positions of power and privilege and are protected by a self-perpetuating system to derisively dismiss such proposals as outrageous and perhaps even extremist. The fact remains that so long as political parties play a dominant role in elections, all registered political parties must be provided the same opportunities afforded the parties of the establishment. Failing that, the electorate cannot cast an informed ballot.

Whether exclusionary debates are organized directly by a conglomerate of political parties through self-serving negotiations with the media, as was done prior to the creation of the Leaders' Debates Commission, directly by the Government, or by a proxy "independent" organization directed to implement a Government directive, a sow's ear will not become a silk purse.

A Retrogressive Turn in the Electoral and Political Process

It is the opinion of the MLPC that the creation of the Leaders' Debates Commission -- by government decree no less -- is part of a retrogressive trend. Strengthening the exercise of power and privilege over the conduct of elections does not legitimate the further marginalization and disempowerment of the citizenry. It comes at a time when the legitimacy and credibility of the institutions of governance are in deep trouble, butting against the demand of Canadians for an end to all forms of privilege in the electoral and political process.

The discriminatory treatment of candidates and political parties that do not subscribe to the dominant official ideology and the "values and principles" touted as fundamental to our national security and national interest is not new. What is new is the reckless abandon of even the pretense of upholding democratic forms. The more the people lay claim to their right to participate in taking the decisions which affect their lives, on every front of endeavour, the more those in positions of power and influence make open declarations which write off, delegitimize and even criminalize a broad swath of political opinion. Together with the media, great efforts are made to create a climate where doing such things is considered "normal." They are presented as being in the interest of democracy and mandatory to defend national security and the national interest.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself unleashed this retrogressive trend in Yellowknife on February 10, 2017. By way of justifying an unprecedented decision to overrule the recommendation of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform to introduce a system of proportional representation, and abandon his 2015 campaign promise to reform the electoral process to render it more representative than what is allowed by the first-past-the-post method of counting votes, Trudeau declared that Canada's stability would be endangered if any but the "three existing parties," or their like, were to be elected to the House of Commons.

"If we were to make a change or risk a change that would augment individual voices -- that would augment extremist voices and activist voices that don't get to sit within a party that figures out what's best for the whole future of the country, like the three existing parties do -- I think we would be entering a period of instability and uncertainty. And we'd be putting at risk the very thing that makes us luckier than anyone on the planet," Trudeau declared.

The Liberal Government subsequently eliminated the Ministry of Democratic Institutions itself. Admittedly, this Ministry had been created for self-serving reasons in the first place. It was doing a very poor job of giving even its Minister democratic credentials, let alone the Prime Minister and his "mandate letter" which was said to guide its work.

There were those who criticized the Prime Minister for back-tracking on his election campaign promise. The fact remains not a single party with seats in the House of Commons, nor any of the monopoly media personalities, objected to the declaration that henceforth autocratic rule would be used to marginalize all but their own parties.

Today, even the Parliament has become an increasingly "non-essential service" with the cartel parties reduced to introducing private members' bills and motions and using Parliament's committees to foment scandals and diversions. All the while, the government acts with impunity, unfettered by even token accountability to Parliament or the people. The exigencies of the neo-liberal privatization regimes are such that even the trappings of what are called the liberal democratic institutions are falling by the wayside. This includes the pretense that elections are "free and fair" and are the means by which Canadians can hold the cartel parties and candidates to account. Shenanigans such as those which claim that the leaders' debates provide an informed vote are not helpful.

Today, all crucial decisions affecting the polity are taken by the Prime Minister and his Ministers using prerogative powers to set policies -- i.e. police powers. The creation of the Commission is but one small example. Today these police powers not only set the aim of an election to bring in a party government which upholds "the values and principles" enshrined by the Crown. Private corporations and intelligence agencies have been given free rein to openly oversee the electoral process to restrict freedom of speech and conscience, and marginalize and criminalize all opinion they say threatens the liberal democratic institutions which are crisis-ridden. Ludicrous claims are made in a futile attempt to justify this trend. One such claim states that the greatest threat to our democracy is posed by extremist voices who do not join one of the three "big tent" parties. The fact is these parties act as a cartel to keep the people and even their own members out of power. They have destroyed their own constituency organizations and use members only for money and for the purpose of a process which seeks to legitimize their leader who vies to become the next Prime Minister.


The MLPC also objects to the use of public funds to further strengthen an anti-democratic regime. The Liberal Government's Supplementary Program Expenditures for the next federal election leaders' debates is $5,147,844. The Leaders' Debates Commission was allocated a budget of $6 million for 2019 and spent $4.1 million. This is quite an exorbitant amount given that the cost of a televised debate in 2011 was $250,000 -- a cost absorbed by the outlets of the media consortium.

The creation of a leaders' debate commission is another crude method of funding some political parties during an election. What is not used to promote some is used to justify the wall of silence around others. It makes a mockery of election expense rules and the notion of an even playing field and free and fair elections. In fact, to call it a form of corruption would not be considered far-fetched by many.

The MLPC advocates the right of the electorate to an informed vote and the right of all candidates to participate in elections conducted in an impartial manner without privileges accorded to any candidate or party by the state. Given that public funds are used for the promotion of some candidates and parties that a select few have deemed worthy of election, upholding these democratic principles is especially important. The MLPC is of the opinion that public funds should be used to fund the process, not the political parties as is the case today, let alone the discriminatory fashion in which it is done.

In conclusion, all of the elements that inform the Commission entail the exclusion of the majority of parties from the debates, thereby serving to marginalize them and permit them to be defamed on the basis of accusations that they are fringe, irrelevant, extremist and the like.

Justifying political exclusion and marginalization of citizens in the name of "the principles of independence, impartiality, credibility, democratic citizenship, civic education, inclusion and cost-effectiveness," versus justifying it in the name of only including those likely to become Prime Minister all results in the same thing. Once discussion on the right to an informed vote and the fundamental democratic principle of equality is taken off the table by the ruling elite, how to realize them becomes an ever greater matter of concern to the polity.

A crucial question remains: why should elections be informed by the aim of forming a party government in the first place? Why are all candidates not given equal standing and why are methods not devised to inform the polity of what all of them stand for?

The MLPC has seriously studied the documents related to the creation of the National Leaders' Debates Commission, its post-2019 deliberations, as well as the "new" mandate for the Commission, and is broadly distributing its findings and inviting opinions and discussion.

This article was published in

Volume 51 Number 8 - March 21, 2021

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