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
publishing below the submission of Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada
National Leader Anna Di Carlo.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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?
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"
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
A Retrogressive Turn in the Electoral and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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