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JOHN IVISON: What's a debate if you don't hear from the opposite side?

 Maxime Bernier’s populist People’s Party of Canada has caused barely a ripple in the polls.
Maxime Bernier’s populist People’s Party of Canada has caused barely a ripple in the polls. - Lindsay Morey/Postmedia

OTTAWA, Ont.  — Reading the electoral platform of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party induces a slight throbbing about the temples.

From his call for a “Canadian values” test for immigrants to lowering the number of newcomers accepted to “between 100,000 and 150,000” from the estimated 330,000 this year, Bernier has proven himself to be a cynical opportunist.

This, after all, is the man who admonished his Conservative party leadership rival, Kellie Leitch, for proposing similar policies during a televised debate just two years ago.

“She said in the campaign that we must look at our immigration system in Canada (but) as you know, we’re not like in the U.S., we don’t have the same problem with illegal immigrants. I don’t know why Ms. Leitch is playing a karaoke version of Donald Trump in Canada. … We are open to immigration,” he said.

As a former industry minister, Bernier knows well that Canada increasingly relies on immigration for labour force growth — that a rapidly aging population requires the hundreds of thousands of highly educated newcomers (often better qualified than those born in Canada) to drive our economy.

But he also knows that more than a third of Canadians have negative views of immigration. He scorched the earth behind him as he left the Conservative party he came within a whisker of leading. Now, his political future rests on a tour of Canada’s church basements, belting out karaoke versions of Trump’s greatest hits — “My Way,” “Don’t Worry (about climate change), Be Happy,” etc.

It’s unlikely to end well. Most opinion polls have the People’s Party tracking between three and five per cent nationally. A poll in Bernier’s own southeast Quebec constituency suggests he’s neck and neck with the Conservative candidate in a riding he has won with no less than 50 per cent of the vote in every election since 2006. No other PP candidate is given much hope of winning by pollsters doing more granular constituency level surveys.

But — and this is the point I have been meandering towards — Bernier and his party are never likely to make a breakthrough if he is denied a spot in the televised leaders’ debate.

The Leaders’ Debate Commission, the body created to organize two official federal election debates, has made a preliminary ruling that would block Bernier’s participation.

The commission said the People’s Party has not satisfied enough criteria to justify the leader’s inclusion: specifically, it cited a lack of evidence that it has a legitimate chance to elect more than one candidate in October.

Parties cleared to take part in the debates have shown they have a representative in the House who was elected under their banner in 2015, and have candidates in 90 per cent of ridings in the election. Since Bernier was elected as a Conservative, and his party is brand new, he has to provide additional evidence that he has candidates who have a “legitimate” chance of being elected, based on “recent political context, public opinion polls and previous election results.”

Bernier has until Sept. 9 to convince the commission or he’s done.

The ruling seems profoundly undemocratic. Nobody wants to see a debate between the leaders of Canada’s 16 registered political parties but Bernier’s vehicle is clearly more serious than the Rhinoceros Party, with its pledge to privatize the Queen and tax the black market.

The debates are a big deal. Four in 10 voters tuned in for part of the debate in 2011, a number that fell in 2015 when the big broadcasters pulled out but which is likely to recover this year now that they are back in.

To block Bernier on the grounds of polls taken more than two months before the vote is ludicrous. At this stage in 2015, Nanos Research had the Liberals in third place. In the course of the campaign, Justin Trudeau’s party added 10 points of support, while the NDP fell by the same number.

As the PP pointed out in a statement expressing its disappointment at the preliminary decision, if the commission truly considered “recent political context,” it would have to weigh the potential for rapid growth of any populist party in the Western world.

The Democrats in the U.S. are struggling with a similar dilemma, as they try to whittle down the number of candidates from the 20 who took part in the first primary debates.

Successful candidates now have to hit two per cent support in four recent polls and get donations from 130,000 people.

Perhaps the number of donors and the level of donations would be a better criteria for the Canadian debates than snapshot polls in the middle of summer, before the campaign has even kicked off.

This, after all, is a party that has set up associations in 332 ridings since being founded 10 months ago, attracting 40,000 members.

David Johnston is widely regarded as the best governor general this country has seen in 50 years — a man of rich experience and sound judgment. He is heading the Leaders’ Debates Commission and he will, one feels, see the unfairness of this decision, recognize the volatility in the air and revisit the matter.

In a letter to Johnston, Bernier makes the case that his party offers policies distinct from all the other parties on immigration, multiculturalism, climate change and foreign aid.

Most Canadians, including this one, find many of those policies toxic. But a sizeable minority do not and, as Bernier pointed out, they have a right to hear views that differ from those of more established parties.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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