The following remarks were presented before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, House of Commons, Canada, November 28, 2017.
Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before this committee. I strongly support the initiative to create a commission or commissioner to organize federal debates.
The status quo is problematic in many respects. The main concern I wish to address is the lack of transparency, accountability, or public engagement in the organization of debates. Although political debates are an important part of our democracy, the way we organize them is not particularly democratic.
The creation of a commission or commissioner could provide an opportunity for deeper and more meaningful public engagement and deliberation in our election campaigns. Improvements could be made not only in the form and content of debates, but also in the process by which they are organized.
A commission or commissioner could also provide an opportunity to involve a broader spectrum of voices from Canadian society—including First Nations, youth, women, and minorities.
Most importantly, in my view, it would also create an opportunity to counteract the fragmentation of our public life, which I believe is tearing at the fabric of our democracy. We are only beginning to see the effects of this fragmentation.
More and more Canadians get their news content from social media platforms that divide us into smaller publics rather than binding us into one. Political debates are one of the relatively few moments when the whole public can come together and participate in a common activity.
I believe it is important that we do everything we can to sustain a flourishing public life. We need more opportunities for dialogue, deliberation, and engagement of the public in our politics.
It is for this reason that I am involved in a school for politicians at UBC. The Summer Institute for Future Legislators is a program designed to foster the kinds of skills and knowledge needed to be good citizens and good statespersons.
Our participants learn to debate. They engage in question period in the Legislative Chambers. They run caucus meetings. They organize committees and hear witnesses.
And one of the most fascinating transformations that we observe is how participants are quickly seized by the spirit of team work and partisanship. But they are also keenly motivated by a desire for public service. We watch them struggle to balance advancing the interests of the team and working together to find the common good.
That sort of balancing act is what politics involves. It’s what citizenship involves. Unfortunately, there are too few opportunities for citizens to acquire the skills and knowledge to deliberate, to compromise, to balance goods, and to make collective decisions. These are not skills you learn in a textbook. You learn them by doing.
Political debates represent a marvelous opportunity to cultivate citizenship. But to serve that purpose, they cannot be monopolized by parties and the media. We need the involvement of civil society to ensure that the goal of debates is not simply to entertain or create a spectacle, or only to serve partisanship: we need them to promote citizenship as well.
We can imagine ways that debate could be organized and given a form and content that would serve the public interest better than our current system. Very briefly, let me suggest a few ideas for making political debates more democratic.
The commission or commissioner might have an advisory body that reflects Canada’s diversity.
A commission/commissioner could be empowered to place the organization of debates in the hands of an independent body that would include, in addition to representatives of the parties and the media, citizens, civil society groups, and universities. Placing this responsibility in the hands of Elections Canada might be unwise. It must stand above the fray.
The organization of debates should involve open and transparent public engagement to ensure that the key decisions about who participates, what questions are asked, the format, and other matters, reflect the broadest public interest.
In the spirit of our Westminster system, leaders’ debates could be complemented by debates in ridings across the country, as well as debates on specific topics involving ordinary members of parliament. These could be videotapped and made publicly available.
The public should be encouraged to participate in debates by holding their own local face-to-face meetings in small groups or medium-sized assemblies. This could be done by introducing a “deliberation day” holiday (an idea championed by James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman 2004).
Some of these ideas have been more fully developed in other places (see Owen and Griffith 2011), and it would be worthwhile to build on this work. Needless to say, an ambitious agenda to democratize debates would take some time to develop. Creating an independent and adequately funded commission or commissioner would be an excellent first step.
Fishkin, James and Bruce Ackerman, Deliberation Day. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Owen, Taylor and Rudyard Griffiths, “The People’s Debates: A report on Canada’s Televised Election Debates,” written on behalf of the Aurea Foundation. April 2011.