Good morning. Welcome to the 82nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I'd like to let the committee members know that we had a great meeting yesterday with the delegation from Ghana. As well, just a few minutes ago I presented our report to Parliament that would enhance the participation of MPs with babies and infants in the political system. That was great. Good work, committee.
Today we are continuing our study on the creation of an independent commissioner responsible for leaders' debates. For this morning's panel we're pleased to be joined by a number of witnesses.
From CBC/Radio-Canada we have Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief, CBC News,
Also from CBC/Radio-Canada, we have Michel Cormier, General Manager, News and Current Affairs, French Services.
From Corus Entertainment we have Troy Reeb, senior vice-president, news, radio and station operations, and from Bell Media we have Wendy Freeman, president, CTV News.
I know that you are all very important and busy people, so we are very honoured to have you here. We look forward to hearing your opening statements in the order I introduced you.
Jennifer McGuire, we will start with you.
Thank you for offering us a chance to speak with you today. We are a collection of broadcast networks with a large and pivotal role to play in making Canadian democracy function. In coming here today, we share the same objective as this committee—to find the most effective way of providing voters with the tools they need to make thoughtful, informed choices and to engage Canadians, ultimately, in the democratic process. That's especially true for Canada's public broadcaster, but it applies to each and every one of us. Not only do we bring programs to people in every nook and cranny of this country but we have direct experience with every manner of election coverage, including leaders' debates.
Our experience with federal election debates goes back to the very first one in 1968. At that time, CBC/Radio-Canada and CTV started with a blank slate, negotiating the terms with the parties. The arguments over inclusion were not so different from what you hear now. That first debate was split into two sections. Part one had the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats. Part two added the Créditistes. The Social Credit Party was excluded altogether.
Over the years, more broadcasters signed up while political parties came and went. We added debates in French, and have always experimented with format, from round tables to live audiences to social media. Each campaign, lessons and productions evolved.
Certain themes pop up every time. My colleagues and I will discuss the most important today, and we urge you to give them considered attention.
One, we need debates that have the potential to reach each and every Canadian. Again, the shared objective here is public service. How do we improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions? Debates help achieve that by testing candidates for their knowledge, their values, and the nimbleness of their thinking under pressure. We benefit most when the leaders offer depth beyond their prepared messages. Don't underestimate the importance of reaching a vast audience. In this modern world of fractured discourse, this is a rare chance for Canadians to assess candidates in the same time, in the same place, and in the same context. The impact of a debate increases exponentially when they are part of a shared national experience.
Two, we need debates that people will actually watch. Reaching an audience doesn't do much good if people don't engage. You need to have a format that works, a set that looks good, lighting, and a moderator with skill. You need to push and challenge the candidates to stay on topic and relevant to the issues of the day. That's one reason broadcast journalists bring so much value to these debates. Of course, you need producers who understand what it takes to keep eyeballs on the screen, not just television screens but the digital and social spaces too. In that context, I'm sure you know that CBC News is not only a television and radio broadcaster but also a digital leader in Canada, reaching 18.3 million unique visits. In big moments, though, as I think all of us will echo, nothing matches the power and draw of television when it's done properly.
Three, we need to redefine the parties' role in the process. I recognize that's risky—you're all affiliated with political parties—but bear with me. It's our assessment that the biggest flaw in the current system is that the parties are able to use their leverage to direct the debate process. Although it became fashionable in 2015 to attack the major broadcast networks, the truth is that we have never controlled the terms of the debates. They have been the product of a delicate negotiating dance with the political parties themselves. Each party pushes for every edge it can get, from where and when the debate takes place to who can take part to what format is acceptable. They threaten to withhold their participation as they seek terms to give them advantage.
In 2015 the networks acted in good faith but were strung along for months, until we were pushed right off the stage, at least in the English debates. In this the public was not well served. A fraction of Canadians were reached when you compare the audience numbers with those of 2011. If we accomplish nothing else here, it should be to depoliticize the process, put the public interest out front, and ensure that partisan interests are kept in check.
My colleague Michel Cormier of Radio-Canada will explain how this played out in the 2015 campaign.
I get to do this because I was intimately involved in negotiating the debates, especially the French one.
The 2015 election debate context was a strange one indeed. There was no national televised debate in English because one of the parties declined to participate. In French, there was a national debate with all the major party leaders but without the participation of one of the two major television networks. I'll come back to the French debate later.
There is a point of view that the reason the debate negotiations failed is because the consortium model is a failed one. That broadcast executives negotiating behind closed doors with party representatives is undemocratic, that debate rules and parameters set by journalists may serve the interests of television but not political debate.
While we agree that the process has to evolve, let me inject some nuance into this argument by revisiting what happened.
The English debate did not happen because the whole negotiation process was highly politicized. From the early spring of 2015, when we made our first approach to the parties, to the dying days of the campaign, when we still held out hope for a debate, we could not get a commitment from the party in power to participate. The misgivings were not about inclusion or the use of social media or format or content, they were about the consortium itself.
We have always been open to widely distribute the debate and were already in discussions with Google and Facebook to increase its reach on digital platforms. Essentially, as long as the consortium was involved in the exercise—
I was saying that we were even in discussions with Google and Facebook to increase the reach of the debate on digital platforms. Essentially, as long as the consortium was involved in the exercise, the debate was not possible. There was also an opinion that a number of smaller debates was better than one big television debate. This is what eventually happened in English.
Was the voting public better served by this? We think not. The combined audience of these debates was far less than what a national television debate usually gets.
Let me reiterate. We, the major television networks, were open to revisit the format, to make it less staid, to include more partners in making sure that the highest number of voters could access the debate, through Facebook and other platforms. But the discussion never got there. Excluding the consortium from the exercise, in our view, was a disservice to Canadian democracy.
The experience in French was radically different. After much negotiation, all parties eventually agreed to a debate organized by Radio-Canada under the umbrella of the consortium. The parties, at some point, concluded that it was in their interest to participate. We, at Radio-Canada, partnered with other media. TVA held its own leaders' debate on Quebec issues for a Quebec audience. We included the newspaper La Presse, Télé-Québec, Quebec's public broadcaster, as well as Facebook and YouTube, and we made our signal available for a minimum fee to broadcasters like CPAC. We also broadcast the debate on radio and streamed it on all our digital platforms. CBC and CTV, by the way, broadcast the French debate in translation on their all-news networks and Global TV also broadcast the debate on its website.
Radio-Canada produced the debate in our studios and we picked up most of the tab because we believe that it is part of our mandate as a public broadcaster. We also were the only ones with the technical resources and expertise to produce and distribute the debate. The event was a democratic success. We reached more than 1 million viewers on all combined platforms. A national audience that had access to the same information to help them make an informed decision about the leadership of the country.
In a way, the French debate addressed many of the issues that concern the committee. It was inclusive, we reached out to many partners and made the signal available to many others to make sure as many people as possible had access to the debate. We used social platforms to reach other audiences, cord-cutters, who do not subscribe to television service. For the record, our digital reach is as important as our television audience.
So, to conclude, the post-consortium or consortium-plus model we are all looking for may already be out there. What we need, and what we are open to, is a structure that de-politicizes the process, and a commitment from all parties to participate in a wide-ranging, readily available, national debate.
My colleague Troy from Global Television will now explain why it is imperative that major broadcasters be active participants in this process.
Thank you. Good morning.
As mentioned, my name is Troy Reeb. I currently serve as the senior vice-president in charge of Global news, radio and station operations for Corus Entertainment. In a previous capacity, I also served six years as chair of the broadcast consortium on debates and elections and oversaw the process that helped to create the highly successful and highly watched 2008 and 2011 televised leaders' debates.
I will recognize right off the bat that the word “consortium” conjures up images of a grandly organized body, though I should point out that we are very much competitors every day of the week, and we do not speak with a single voice despite the fact that we are all here in front of you today. In the case of the consortium, it simply represents an ad hoc agreement of various news organizations to work together in the public interest. Its creation stems from a desire of the parties to not participate in multiple debates, and a desire of the broadcasters to not be pitted against one another for the right to hold a debate and then to reach as large an audience as possible when a debate was held.
The consortium was never designed to limit the number of debates. I say to you firmly today, the more debates, the better. Indeed, during past elections Global News and other members of the consortium have staged their own supplementary debates. We've staged regional debates, specific topic debates, often featuring candidates beyond the party leaders. This diversity of debates should be encouraged, but there should also be at least one well-produced national debate in each official language that meets broadcast and journalistic standards and is distributed as broadly as possible to Canadians.
To be frank, a chamber of commerce debate does not meet that test. A debate live-streamed by an online magazine does not meet that test: proper lighting, camera placement, pacing, topic choices, a skilled moderator, a set not emblazoned with advertising. As we saw in 2015, all of these things matter, and all of these things also cost money.
A witness earlier this week pointed out, quite correctly actually, that one could now stage a debate and distribute it online for almost zero cost. What he failed to point out is that without production values, proper facilities, and I would say very importantly a journalistic frame for that debate, then there would be almost zero viewers as well.
In the past, consortium debates have been paid for by the participating news organizations and distributed to other media either on a cost-share or sometimes free basis. It has, of course, been up to the individual choice of any media organization as to whether they choose to carry it, and often that's based on whether it meets their standards and the standards that their audience would expect of a debate. This needs to continue to be the case, regardless of how future debates are produced. We, as broadcasters, as journalistic organizations, have the responsibility for upholding our conditions of licence and our journalistic standards. The ability of news organizations to make programming decisions independently is as key to the free functioning of democracy as is the ability to engage in vigorous debate.
I look forward to your questions later, and I'll turn it over to my colleague, Wendy Freeman.
Good morning. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to provide our feedback on this important process. As broadcast networks, Canadians have long counted on our involvement in the debate process. We consider it an obligation to our viewers and the communities we serve. We believe that it is in the best interest of democracy to expose as many Canadians as possible to our potential leaders as they debate the issues affecting our nation.
We are open to working with an independent commission or commissioner. It is imperative that we have a seat at the table to create a process that works for Canadians. As broadcast networks, we play an indispensable role in ensuring a functioning democracy, one that is designed to properly inform our citizens through inclusion and transparency. Together our networks reach the most Canadians of any communications platform. This was the reason we formed the consortium in the first place, to ensure that the largest audience has access to the debates. We can all agree that an informed citizenry ensures that more Canadians make educated decisions at the polls, and we take great pride in this role.
In 2011 the consortium's English-language debate reached over 10 million Canadians, or 46% of the population, and four million Canadians tuned in to watch the consortium's French-language debate, or 50% of the population. In 2015 a different debate structure, without the involvement of Canada's national broadcast networks, was proposed and followed. The debates were smaller and much more scaled down, and unfortunately, viewership, compared with previous years, was alarmingly low.
You may ask yourself if, in today's social media and digital streaming universe, TV networks even matter. The answer is yes, they absolutely matter. We can demonstrate with hard data that Canadians still very much tune into television, especially live-event television. In fact, we only need to look south of the border, where last year's U.S. election debates drew a record 259 million viewers.
There have been calls for the debate process to be treated as a democratic exercise and not to concern itself with the journalistic integrity that established and trusted news organizations deliver to Canadians each and every day. I ask you, should we not strive for both? The consortium was founded on journalistic values and the broad experience of its members. As a consortium, we have the journalistic broadcast and digital production expertise to deliver the best possible debate content, adequately representative of the Canadian political reality, in a format that can generate the broadest possible audience.
Successful debates are a high point of our democratic process. With the onset of the fake news phenomenon, it is even more important that credible journalism play a strong role in our debates. Voters should not be forced to get their information second-hand via highlight reels, clips taken out of context, or through the delivery of coordinated fake news.
Moving forward, as my colleague said earlier, there are many questions that need to be answered. How do we reach the most Canadians possible? How do we provide the best experience, in a journalistic and non-partisan way, to involve Canadians and maximize voter engagement while drawing the biggest audience? How do we depoliticize the process without cutting off more debates from happening?
Once again, the best way to serve democracy is through reach and credibility. In 2015 the debates went unseen by millions of Canadians. We owe it to Canadians to do better. Together we can create a solution that strengthens our democracy, and we are committed to meeting that objective.
Thank you, and we look forward to your questions.
Yes, I didn't even have to be right. It's a great business to be in.
Everything was going hunky-dory as far as the paradigm that you've outlined here.
Mr. Reeb, I appreciate what you're saying about the form of this thing. A leaders' debate run through the Fogo Island chamber of commerce does not quite have the same impact as what you're doing. I get that. The journalistic principles, the lights, the sets, the shooting, all of that I get. Things are going fairly well from the 1968 debate all the way through. Now in the last one, things started to go a little awry. We have all these platforms, and now you have major leaders saying they're not doing a debate, or they are, and who's involved, so on and so forth.
I have two questions. The first one is, basically, how do you look at a leader of a national party who doesn't want to participate in what you're offering? Should there be penalties in place by which they should be at that debate?
The second question I have is, what you outlined, that paradigm you outlined, we're here to see if we can hand that paradigm over to an official body that does just that, as deemed by Parliament. How do you see that working?
I apologize for the two questions, because I want to get all of you on this.
Maybe, Mr. Reeb, we'll start with you.
Thank you. You did that right, even without a green screen behind you.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Troy Reeb: It's an interesting question. The consortium has taken flak in the past for the fact that a lot of its discussions took place behind closed doors, in camera.
I would say to the members of this committee that you know that the kinds of conversations you can have in camera around publicly sensitive topics are different than the kinds of conversations you can have when the cameras are rolling. I think, as journalists and people who head news organizations, we are very much in favour of providing more transparency to the discussions that lead to a debate.
The problem is that the more politicized those discussions become, the more difficult it is to reach a consensus for how a debate can take place. I think if we saw what happened in the 2015 process, the politicization happened very, very early, and for whatever reason, one party in particular decided there was an advantage to be gained by continuing to play media organizations against each other. I think we saw the results of that, and Canadians weren't as well served with a debate.
I don't think it's my place—I wouldn't say it's the place of anybody else on this panel—to suggest whether there should be penalties for someone who doesn't participate in the debate. That would be the work of this committee, I'm sure. The challenge has always been to compel participation, particularly when one party or one leader feels the deck is not stacked in their favour by the format of the debate. That's why there's a lot of back and forth between party officials to try to come up with a format that works for all. Recognizing that's rarely achieved, it then starts to fall to public pressure. The public expects there to be a broadly televised debate.
Therefore, if someone doesn't want to participate, it's the public pressure that would be put on that leader as a result that has been the accountability mechanism in the past. It clearly didn't work the last time.
Great. Thank you very much, Chair.
Thank you, all, for being here. My first observation is that it's nice to see gender balance. It's very good.
Having said that, I have to tell you, given that you're all journalists and news agencies, I'm left at the end of your presentations with “what's the news?” You, Ms. Freeman, said you're open to working with an independent commission or commissioners. I've heard the collective message that the idea of a consortium method is good. You thought that's healthy.
We've heard in detail about how it all fell apart last time. I have to say that's what's really motivating me this time. It was, when the idea first came up, from having watched what happened last time and thinking that this is nuts. I don't know how much my party was culpable, too. I'm just saying a pox on all their houses. Canadians were let down. We have to fix this.
Having come all the way around, what would you recommend? I think maybe what you're saying is to keep the consortium idea. That would be part of the main debate. I'm really not clear on what it is you're urging us to do.
What is your perspective? You said you're willing to work if we go with an independent commission. Do you like that idea? Is that what you think we should do? Are you recommending that we stay out and let you continue to do it the way you have done it in the past and you're going to try to do a better job? What exactly are you recommending that we do?
Thanks to colleagues around the table because I'm allowed to sit at the table, just for background, but I'm not necessarily allowed to speak without the consent of my colleagues.
I've been engaging with the consortium. In fact, the first and only face-to-face meeting I had with the consortium was back in 2007, so it's a decade of experience. I have to say that over that time I've had the impression that many individual members of the consortium regarded the task as thankless. I think your appearance before the committee today absolutely underscores how thankless it is, but I do want to thank you, although I've had a rather bad experience.
I want to approach the narrative that's emerging today that somehow the debates were all going really well between the late sixties up until 2015. Just for purposes of historical interest, I think you may recall Tony Burman's op-ed. Tony Burman, who was editor-in-chief of CBC News, chaired the consortium between 2000 and 2007, and this op-ed ran in The Globe and Mail under the heading “The election debate process is a sham”. What he concentrated on was this, which is his first line:
Prime Minister Harper's refusal to allow the Green Party leader to participate in the Federal Election Debates is cynical and self-serving, but at least it exposes the sham that Canada's election debate process has become.
This article appeared in March 2009. What he refers to, of course, is that:
The CRTC and federal courts have reaffirmed the networks' right to “produce” this broadcast on their own, without any outside interference. And this is certainly the claim of the networks—including by me when I chaired the “consortium” for those seven years. But in reality, the government in power has a veto, and without the Prime Minister's participation, the debate won't happen.
We've skirted around this issue so far today.
In terms of reflecting back, I've been involved in getting in the debates, not getting in the debates, rules changing, debates disappearing, and so on, for a decade. I'm just wondering whether you would agree with Tony Burman that the parties negotiate, but the larger parties have systematically operated to exclude smaller parties from access to the room where the negotiations happen.
If you would like me to respond to that—
Mr. John Nater: Please do.
Mr. Troy Reeb: —there was lots to criticize in the production of several of those debates.
However, the bottom line comes down to, I'm not going to flip the switch and put on to our network a product that we're not familiar with. If someone hands you a sandwich on the street, you might be hungry but you're probably not going to take a bite if it's a strange sandwich suddenly coming to you.
That was the choice we were being offered, to basically open the switch and take a product from the Munk centre or from Rogers—“Hey, put this on your airwaves”—for which you have accountability for that broadcast.
We answer to the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council, to the CRTC. We're not prepared to do that. We weren't prepared to do it then. I wouldn't necessarily be prepared to do it if it was the CBC that was putting on its own product as well.
We want to have a voice and we want to have an understanding of what that product is going to be.
It is my pleasure to assist the committee in its study of the creation of an independent commission responsible for leaders' debates.
I have been following the proceedings of the committee and am pleased to provide input from the perspective of Elections Canada. My remarks will briefly touch on the objectives that, in my view, should inform the creation of an independent commission, or commissioner, for regulating leaders' debates. I will also outline a number of considerations respecting how such an entity could be structured and function, should the committee choose to recommend one.
There are several models internationally for leaders' debates, including regulation through an independent public commission. But, before looking at a particular design, it is important, in my view, to look at the objectives that may lead this committee to recommend the creation of a commission and that, if it does, may determine the mandate and certain features of the commission's structure.
For my part, I would suggest the following three objectives that directly contribute to a fair and open electoral process. Clearly, these concerns are my own.
First, debates should be organized in a manner that is fair, non-partisan and transparent.
Second, debates should be broadly accessible to the public. For example, they should be presented in a format that is available to the largest possible audience, including persons with disabilities.
Third, debates should contribute to informing the electorate of the range of political options they have to choose from.
There are three considerations to be taken into account in establishing an independent commission, or a commissioner. First, there is the matter of the criteria for inclusion in the debates. You know that one of the most important and contentious issues with regard to leaders' debates is who is included. Everyone is aware that this question has given rise to significant controversy over the years. In my view, an independent commission should not be mired in controversies regarding inclusion, especially in the middle of an election campaign. For that reason, the criteria for inclusion in the debates must be clear, and should allow for no or very little residual discretion by the commission. The criteria may allow for a range of factors. I know that, last week, witnesses came before the committee to talk about a range of factors. I am specifically thinking about Mr. Fox, who talked about a basket of criteria. The criteria could allow for a good deal of flexibility, for example, to allow for the participation of emerging parties.
But the criteria should be such that their application by the commission should be straightforward, if not mechanical. It is important to keep in mind that, to date, challenges to leaders' debates under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms have failed on the basis that they were essentially private events not subject to charter scrutiny.
If a commission were created to regulate the debates. and more specifically participation in the debates, the commission would be subject to the Canadian charter without doubt.
I recognize that it is difficult to draw the line regarded regarding inclusion in leaders' debates. For this very reason, I feel that it is important for parliamentarians to establish the appropriate criteria rather than the commission. I feel that the commission must apply criteria that are flexible, but that provide no room for discretion.
The second point regards the format and content of debates. While I believe the criteria for inclusion should leave little to no discretion to a commission, I see no reason that it could not have broad latitude in shaping the format and editorial aspects of the debates, subject only to the overarching objectives that I highlighted at the beginning of my remarks.
In terms of the format, as we know, the media landscape is in constant evolution, in particular with respect to social media. The commission should have the latitude to adjust with the industry and to take advantage of the opportunities.
In deciding the format, however, the equality of French and English must be respected and promoted. The broadcasting of the debates should also ensure access for people with disabilities. This means providing closed-captioning, sign language, accessible web design, or other means of facilitating access for persons with specific disabilities.
In dealing with both the content and format of the debates, an independent commission or commissioner could be required to receive input from participants and other stakeholders. It could also, and I believe this is important, be required to report to Parliament after the election to ensure transparency in its decision-making.
The final consideration is the structure of an independent commission. Obviously, the committee will need to consider the leadership and membership of a commission. Certainly the chair and members of a commission, should there be additional members, need to have the knowledge and expertise to organize debates. They could include representatives of the traditional networks as well as representatives of new media, appointed through a formula that prevents partisanship. They could also include representatives of civil society groups. If the chosen model was that of a single commissioner, he or she could consult with civil society groups and other stakeholders or set up an advisory committee to assist him or her in making decisions.
Some have suggested that Elections Canada should have a role to play in this area. With due respect, I disagree. I strongly believe that Elections Canada must be insulated from any decision-making regarding the leaders' debates so as to remain above the fray.
Debates are an important element of the campaign and often contribute to defining the ballot box issues. This is what makes the debates exciting and important. The Chief Electoral Officer should not be involved in matters that could be perceived as having an influence on the orientation of the campaign or the results of the election.
That being said, you may wish to consider a broadcasting arbitrator in establishing a commissioner or an independent commission. As you know, the arbitrator is an independent office-holder under the Canada Elections Act. He is appointed by unanimous consent of the parties in the House of Commons, or if there is no consent, by the Chief Electoral Officer after consultation with the parties. For example, the broadcasting arbitrator could be appointed as the chair of the commission to play essentially a facilitating role in convening the commission and ensuring that it functions properly, or instead, the model of the arbitrator could be emulated in the establishment of either a new commission or commissioner.
Finally, the nature of the commission's mandate may not necessitate an ongoing entity. Its activities will likely be sporadic and its meetings ad hoc. For example, most of the editorial decisions may be made in the lead-up to or during the campaign.
Elections Canada could certainly provide administrative support for an independent commission, including the payment of the commission's expenses. This is the model that is currently followed for the broadcasting arbitrator. It is also the model followed for the electoral boundaries commissions, which work independently from Elections Canada. It's a flexible and effective model that allows the commission to function with some basic administrative support without implicating Elections Canada in the decisions themselves.
Mr. Chair, I've set out a number of considerations that I hope will be helpful to the committee. I would be happy to answer any questions that committee members may have.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for inviting us to appear before this committee as part of your study on a proposal to create an independent commission or commissioner to organize political party leaders' debates during future federal election campaigns.
My name is Michael Craig, and I am a manager in the television policy group at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or the CRTC. With me today is my colleague Peter McCallum, and he is our general counsel of communications law.
We are pleased to have this opportunity to explain the role played by the CRTC as it pertains to leaders' debates during federal elections.
The Broadcasting Act sets out, among other things, that the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system offer a balance of information and provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of different views on matters of public concern.
As trustees of the public airwaves, radio and television broadcasters play a significant role in providing news and information to Canadians, particularly during elections. They have a duty to ensure that the public has sufficient knowledge of the issues surrounding an election, and the positions of political parties and candidates to the public at large. Such a role is vital to the functioning of the democracy we enjoy in this country.
Our role at the CRTC is to ensure that broadcasters serve the Canadian public during elections so that citizens may make informed decisions on election day. The CRTC, as a matter of principle, does not dictate the type of content that broadcasters must air, be it political coverage or otherwise. Those are editorial and business decisions best left to the broadcasters themselves.
The Broadcasting Act does give the CRTC the power to make regulations regarding the proportion of time that may be devoted to the broadcasting of programs, advertisements, or announcements of a partisan political character.
Accordingly, the commission has made regulations affecting most broadcasters if they choose to air programs of a political nature. Those that do are required to allocate time for the broadcast of programs, advertisements or announcements of a partisan political character on an equitable basis to all accredited political parties and rival candidates.
In addition, the Canada Elections Act requires that the CRTC publish a bulletin within four days of the writ being issued for a general election. The bulletin essentially reminds broadcasters of their obligations during the election period. What follows is set out in these bulletins.
Let me explain how we fulfill our mandate. Broadcasters must offer equitable on-air time to all candidates, parties, and issues during the election, so if broadcasters offer time on air they must do so for all candidates and parties. This enables them to share their ideas and opinions on issues with the public. The decision to accept or reject that offer of time on air rests solely with the candidate or party.
I'll pause for just a moment to make an important clarification. “Equitable”, which is in our regulations, does not necessarily mean equal. Our role at the CRTC is not to ensure that every candidate or party receives the same time on air as any other.
Similarly, the CRTC has also identified four types of election coverage: first. campaign advertising time paid for by a party or candidate; second, free campaign advertising time for a party or candidate; third, campaign news coverage; and fourth, public affairs and prime-time advertising during federal elections.
In most of these types of coverage, offers that are extended to one party or candidate must also be extended to other candidates or parties. So if one party or candidate receives free time, rival parties and candidates must also be offered free time. And if a broadcaster sells paid advertising time to any party or candidate, it must also make advertising time available to rival parties and candidates.
As far as debates among political leaders during election times are concerned, the CRTC's current approach was put in place in 1995 following a decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal that held that debates were not of a partisan political character. As a result, debate programs do not need to feature all the rival parties or candidates in one or more programs. So long as the broadcaster takes steps to ensure that audiences are informed on the main issues, and the positions of the candidates and the parties are presented on their public affairs programming generally, the CRTC considers them to be in compliance with its regulation.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I have a series of questions, all of which stem from Mr. Perrault's excellent presentation. I thought it was one of the most thoughtful presentations I've heard on any subject before this committee for some time. But before I do that, I just want to respond editorially to Mr. Graham's inquiry about local debates.
There are no formal standards for local debates, as he knows. If you look around, you'll discover that they take on a very similar character across ridings and within a riding, despite the fact that these groups clearly don't talk to each other. The scheduling of debates in my own very large, rural riding confirms this. We are constantly driving back and forth from the far ends of the riding. That being said, they do have a natural symmetry.
I just wanted to say that once you get into having some kind of central control, you have to start getting into centralized criteria such as accessibility. In a rural riding like mine, or yours—our Chief Electoral Officer can confirm this—trying to find suitable polling locations that are accessible and meet all the relevant criteria is a logistical nightmare. We frequently fudge on that, the chambers of commerce and so on that organize these things. I think allowing that fudge factor to continue to exist is the right way of handling things. A decentralized system is the best way of achieving it. Those are my thoughts.
My questions are for Mr. Perrault.
Let me start with page 3 of your presentation. You suggested there are three important objectives that need to be met. You said that debates should be organized in a manner that is fair, non-partisan, and transparent, and that debates should be as broadly accessible as possible to the public. You then made specific reference to making sure they are available to persons with disabilities. I imagine you're thinking primarily of visual and auditory disabilities, although you may have others in mind as well. The third criterion was that they should inform the electorate of the range of political options they have to choose from. I assume that is a reference to the various political parties.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to the witnesses for your excellent testimony.
It seems to me that it's boiling down to two questions and each of these bodies, Elections Canada and CRTC, have a role to play if we're looking at what kinds of rules we might want to put in place to have fair debates that reach the maximum number of Canadians. It looks like one mechanism is to get the debates on air, so that deals with broadcasting. The other is to get the leaders to show up in front of the podium.
Certainly your preference, Mr. Perrault, is that Parliament determine the criteria. I think that also makes a lot of sense. They should be predetermined so that, as Scott Reid was pointing out, we don't find out in the middle of the election campaign who's in and who's out, because it creates a lot of uncertainty.
On the point of how we might get the leaders there, I just wanted to put a question to you, Mr. Perrault.
It seems to me that election campaign financing might give us a bit of an effective inducement to show up. Contrary to the rhetoric when they cancelled the per vote support that we used to have due to the reform put in place by Jean Chrétien.... The rhetoric at the time of getting rid of that $1.75 per vote, or whatever it was, was that the Canadian taxpayer doesn't want to fund political parties. However, we know that the Canadian taxpayer does fund political parties quite a lot, and the part that was cancelled was the smallest part. The biggest part is the rebates at the end of the campaign, and there's also the benefit of very generous tax treatment.
Focusing on the rebate...and I got this idea from a private members' bill that put forward, which didn't succeed. He was trying to put forward the idea that if you had gender parity you'd get all your money back, but to the extent that you didn't have gender parity in your candidate selection a political party would get less money back.
I'm just wondering what your view would be if the Canada Elections Act was amended to say that any party leader of a recognized political party who meets the criteria to participate in the debate and who refuses to participate, faces some form—I'm not going to dictate what it might be—of financial penalty for failing to provide the Canadian public with what we all agree and all witnesses agree is the moment of maximum public engagement to see how policies and proposals are put forward by different leaders.
Would that be something that you'd think the Canada Elections Act...? Obviously, Parliament would determine it, but I think it would be an effective inducement. I'd just love your opinion on that.