OTTAWA – The federal government is appointing former Governor General David Johnston to be Canada’s first-ever independent commissioner of televised leaders' debates during federal elections, moving to take political arm wrestling out of the equation.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould made the announcement Tuesday morning, as she unveiled the new non-partisan process for organizing federal leaders' debates for the 2019 campaign. This new commission, led by Johnston, will also include a seven-member advisory board that he is expected to create by spring 2019.

As part of the new rules, parties looking to put their leader in the debates need to meet two of these three criteria:

  • having at least one MP elected at the time the election is called
  • intend to run candidates in at least 90 per cent of electoral districts
  • obtained four per cent of the vote in the last campaign, or have a "legitimate chance" to win seats in the upcoming election, based on public opinion and polling data

Gould said it would be up to Johnston to determine how a "legitimate chance" to win seats would be quantified.

Based on these criteria, it is expected that the leader of the Bloc Quebecois and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will be invited to participate in the debates, and opens the door to People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, should he run enough candidates or be doing well enough in the polls.

In past elections the federal leaders of political parties have faced off on live television in either French or English, debating major policy issues and the finer points of their campaign pledges. The debates are currently organized through discussions between the federal parties and a consortium of major broadcasters. The formats of the debates often varied on the topics, setting, and sometimes, which parties participated. In the last election, viewership of the debates was lower than it had been during the 2006, 2008, and 2011 election campaigns.

The commission has to organize two debates, one in each official language.

Gould said this new structure is centred on the principle that the process for organizing these debates be done absent of partisan interests, and in a "fair, open, and transparent," way that emphasizes impartiality and accessibility. She said that a healthy democracy depends on an informed electorate, which televised debates can facilitate when the largest number of Canadians are able to view them.

Johnston will have to engage the political parties to negotiate the terms of the debates. He is also in charge of hiring a production company to produce the debates "in accordance with high journalistic standards" and offer that feed free of charge to any organization that wishes to distribute it. Gould said Johnston will hold an open call for proposals to produce the debates, and it will be at his discretion to determine which bids will be successful.

The advisory board will be gender balanced and representative of the various regions of Canada. The government is recommending this group include people with experience in journalism, broadcasting, accessibility, and should “aim to include statespersons” like former politicians from across spectrum "to bring experience and gravitas."

The federal 2018 budget included $5.5 million over the next two years for this endeavor, and the commission will have to report to Parliament following the 2019 debates to "inform the potential creation of a more permanent leaders' debates commission" come 2020 when Johnston’s mandate ends.

During the 2015 campaign, the Liberals promised to create an independent commission to organize leaders' debates to, as they put it: "bring an end to partisan gamesmanship."

The government held a series of roundtable and online consultations that concluded in February. After studying the issue for months, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee issued a report in March recommending among other things, that the new commissioner be chosen by all parties, or based on the advice of an arms-length panel, with a term of five years or two elections.

Johnston is expected to meet with the PROC committee to discuss his new job.

Gould said this new structure leans heavily on the committee's recommendations, though NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen expressed frustration that Gould did not take the committee’s advice on having the commissioner be selected jointly by all parties.

"The debates are where a lot of Canadians get their main bit of information in deciding who to pick for their next prime minister," Cullen said.

"They didn't take any names or recommendations, they didn't offer us any short lists. They didn't offer us any process by which it isn't the government alone unilaterally choosing who the debates commissioner is, who then gets to choose who their advisory committee is, who then get to choose what the content of the debates are," said Cullen.

Conservative democratic institutions critic Stephanie Kusie also took issue with not being involved in the selection process and accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of trying to "rig" the 2019 election in his favour by this new approach, but offered no substantial evidence to back this allegation other than the Liberals being the ones to create this commission, and pointing to there being just two debates under the commissioner’s purview.

Johnston was appointed to the position of governor general upon then- Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's recommendation.

Kusie said it is an "affront to democracy" that this entire process related to Canadian elections is happening unilaterally, without debate in the House of Commons.

“What this is doing, this is silencing Canadians,” Kusie said.

May, who has been vocal about solidifying a spot in the federal debates after not always being included, welcomed the government's announcement as a positive step. She said this is the first time since 1968, when the first televised federal party leaders’ debate took place, that there are "published, transparent criteria for participation in the debates."

Though, she would still like to see some sort of punitive measure imposed on leaders who refuse to participate in these debates.

"There needs to be some way to compel leaders of parties to participate in the debates because the debates matter," said May.

Neither Cullen nor May objected to Johnston being nominated to this new role. May called him an "inspired choice and one that I think Canadians can trust to be above the political fray."

"He is someone who is extraordinary, impartial, nonpartisan, and I think all Canadians can rest assured for the independence that he will guarantee," Gould said.