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Decision: Participation of the leader of the People's Party of Canada ("PPC") in the 2019 leaders' debates

This decision is based on the interpretation and application of participation criteria set out in Order in Council P.C. 2018-1322, dated October 29, 2018 (the "OIC").

The reasoning for my decision includes the rationale set out in my earlier letter to the PPC on August 12, 2019; the document accompanying that letter entitled Interpretation of Participation Criteria for the Leaders' Debates (the "Interpretation Document"); and the further reasons that follow below.

Overview, context, and process to date

The Interpretation Document stated:

The Commission concludes that the application of the mandated participation criteria contains both objective and subjective elements. 

While the OIC sets out what appears to be three criteria to be interpreted and applied, these can in fact be divided as follows:

  • Criterion (i): the party is represented in the House of Commons by a Member of Parliament who was elected as a member of that party;
  • Criterion (ii): the Commissioner considers that the party intends to endorse candidates in at least 90% of electoral districts in the general election in question;
  • Criterion (iii):
    1. the party's candidates for the most recent general election received at that election at least 4% of the number of valid votes cast; or,
    2. based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results, the Commissioner considers that candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question.

To participate in the debates, the PPC must satisfy two of these criteria.

The letter to the PPC on August 12, 2019, stated that:

With respect to criterion (i), even though you are a sitting Member of Parliament, your party was not in existence during the last federal election. This precludes the People's Party of Canada from qualifying under this first participation criteria. Similarly, the People's Party of Canada does not qualify under criterion (iii)(a). Your party must therefore demonstrate to the Commission that it satisfies the two remaining criteria.

With respect to criterion (ii), based on your nomination process and the number of candidates you have designated, I conclude that your party satisfies the condition that requires fielding candidates in 90% of the ridings.

I reiterate that I consider the PPC to have satisfied the condition that requires fielding candidates in 90% of the ridings.

The letter continued:

With respect to criterion (iii)(b), at this time in the electoral cycle, we do not consider that the People's Party of Canada has a legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate in the next federal election.

I indicated that this was a preliminary assessment and that I would continue to evaluate the PPC's qualification under this criterion.  The PPC was asked to submit, by August 23, 2019, a list of three to five ridings that it believed most likely to elect a PPC candidate. In its August 23 letter the party provided the following list of electoral districts, while noting that as a young party it chose to use the criterion of best-known individuals to determine most legitimate chance:

  • Beauce
  • Etobicoke North
  • Nipissing-Timiskaming
  • Charleswood-St.-James-Assiniboia-Headingley
  • Pickering-Uxbridge

After receiving this submission, the Commission sought additional information on the legitimate chance of the PPC's candidates being elected in these ridings, addressed below, and also asked the PPC to provide, by September 9, any additional information that it deemed necessary for the Commissioner to consider.

The PPC provided additional submissions by way of letters dated September 4 and 9, 2019, in addition to its letters dated July 22, and August 13 and 23, 2019, all of which I have considered in reaching my decision.

Considerations with Respect to Criterion (iii)(b)

The Interpretation Document, with regards to criterion (iii)(b), stated,

In determining 'recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general results', the Commission has considered and will consider the following:

  1. Evidence provided by the party in question in relation to the criterion;
  2. Both current standing and trends in national public opinion polls;
  3. Riding level polls, both publicly-available and internal party polls if provided as evidence by the party and riding projections;
  4. Information received from experts and political organizations regarding information about particular ridings;
  5. Parties and candidates' performances in previous elections;
  6. Media presence and visibility of the party and/or its leader nation-wide;
  7. Whether a party is responsive to or represents a contemporary political trend or movement;
  8. Federal by-election results that took place since the last general election;
  9. Party membership; and
  10. Party fundraising.

The Interpretation Document also outlines the conclusions that the phrase "candidates endorsed by the party" means that political parties will need to demonstrate that more than one candidate endorsed by the party has a legitimate chance to be elected; and that the phrase "legitimate chance to be elected" means a reasonable chance of having someone elected.  Regarding this final point, I note also that "legitimate chance to be elected" in the English version of the OIC reads in the French "veritable possibilité d'être élus", which could be roughly translated as real or realistic possibility in interpreting legitimate chance.  This suggests that legitimate chance shall be read as possibility and not probability, provided that the possibility is bounded by reasonableness and subject to evidence based tests.  Ultimately, I have interpreted the OIC's use of "legitimate chance" to mean a reasonable chance.

Overall, as stated in the Interpretation Document, my primary decision regarding criterion (iii)(b) is assessing the reasonable chance of candidates to be elected.

This decision is complex and involves a number of considerations as they relate to "recent political context, public opinion polling, and previous general election results."  Certain of these fields lend themselves to quantitative measurement and others to a more qualitative assessment, and several observations are helpful in interpreting these three phrases.  In my reasoning, I have adhered closely to the language in the mandate set out in the OIC.

First, the phrase that qualifies the Commissioner's decision on legitimate chance ("based on the recent political context, public opinion polls and previous general election results") contains within it three fields of examination.  While each stands alone, I conclude that these should be considered together as a whole in order to make a decision as to the legitimate chance of candidates to be elected.  No one factor is determinative.

Second, in interpreting "recent political context" and "public opinion polls" I note the somewhat different tests.  "Recent political context" is broad, complex and somewhat subjective with many factors, and the weight given to each of the factors will vary.  Each is not equal.  As recognized by experts in the field, "public opinion polls" is less broad, more quantitative (though requiring some subjective consideration) and more defined with a methodology which is evolving and bounded by ranges and margins of error.  It too has a number of competing parts not all of which are equal in weight.

Third, there is an added difficulty due to a latency factor.  The ideal date for making a determination of whether these tests are met is October 21, the date of the election.  But the determination has to be made not only by the date of the first debate, October 7, but somewhat earlier than that, September 16, to ensure there is sufficient time for the debate producer to integrate the participating leaders into the debate organization and for the leaders to prepare adequately.  Thus, I have considered whether there is a prospect of a positive trend between today's date and the election date with respect to the recent political context and public opinions polls when considering whether the PPC has a legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate.

Final Determination with Respect to the PPC under Criterion (iii)(b)

With the above in mind, I have considered a range of evidence regarding the factors a. to j. from the Interpretation Document.  I have also reviewed and considered the submissions made by the PPC and the other political parties.  Set out below are the most relevant factors I have considered in the assessment of whether candidates endorsed by the PPC have a legitimate chance to be elected.

"Recent political context"

"Recent political context" is the first of three fields of examination under criterion (iii)(b) of the OIC.  Within this field, I identify several considerations of note which may significantly influence the PPC's legitimate chance to elect more than one candidate.

First, regarding factors i. (party membership) and j. (party fundraising) of the Interpretation Document, the PPC has demonstrated strong organizational capacity for a party registered less than one year ago.  Its membership, riding association numbers, fundraising, and ability to field candidates in more than 310 ridings point to an organizational ability and capability to attract voters across the country.  In particular, I note the PPC's publicly reported evidence that it has over 40,000 members and received over $750,000 in donations in the first quarter of 2019.

Second, regarding factor f. (media presence), the PPC submitted in its August 23 letter that at that time the PPC's leader, Maxime Bernier, was higher than two of the other five leaders already selected for participation on media 'hits':  1.5 times more than one and 25 times more than the other; and on social media 'hits': 5 times more than one and 43 times than another.  This may support the observation of a more active discussion of the PPC's policies in non-traditional media audiences.

Third, also regarding factor f. (media presence), I note that there are often attempts to provide coverage of a range of political parties during an election campaign.  As such, the PPC's platform may receive more media attention during the writ period.

Fourth, regarding factor g. (whether a party represents a contemporary political trend or movement), I note the PPC's submissions as to the degree of differentiation in the policy ideas of the PPC on issues that the reasonable voter might conclude are potentially significant.  This may suggest the PPC's positions on some of these policies may gather support and that this may influence the PPC's chance to elect more than one candidate.  I did not, however, give consideration to the argument that the PPC's policy ideas should in and of themselves be used to determine its qualification for the debates.

Fifth, regarding factor h. (recent by-election results), I note the outcomes of the PPC in the four by-elections held in 2019, where the party received from 1.5% to 10.6% of eligible votes cast.

Sixth, regarding factor a. (evidence from the party in question), I examined recent electoral outcomes in Canada provided by the PPC with a view of assessing the degree to which support for a party may increase during an election campaign.  Upon review of these results, such as the 2011 and 2015 federal elections and the 2018 New Brunswick provincial election, I conclude that it is possible that the PPC's support may change positively over the course of the upcoming campaign, which would affect its legitimate chance to elect more than one candidate.

"Public opinion polls"

"Public opinion polls" is the second field of examination under criterion (iii)(b) of the OIC.  Within this field, I have considered the PPC's submission that, because the party is new and without a track record, polling results should be disregarded or given very little weight.  I conclude that polling results should be considered.

First, regarding factor c. (riding level polls), I considered publicly available polling for the riding of Beauce, including a recent poll conducted by Mainstreet Research on August 5.  This poll found that the PPC candidate was the choice of the highest percentage of respondents at 28.7% in the phone survey of 640 voters, and that another candidate was the choice of 27.7%.

Second, also regarding factor c. (riding level polls), I tasked EKOS Research Associates with conducting polling in the other four ridings identified by the PPC in its August 23 letter.  The survey instrument asked respondents in each of the four ridings "how likely are you to vote for [name of candidate], the People's Party of Canada candidate in your riding in the next federal election?"  Respondents were not asked their specific partisan vote intention, as the Commission believed it was important to minimize the degree to which the potential polling could be perceived as influencing an electoral outcome.  The results of these polls, conducted between August 26 and September 9 and with a margin of error of 4.4%-4.9%, 19 times out of 20, were as followsEndnote1:

  • In Nipissing-Timiskaming, the survey of 502 voters found that 34.1% of respondents would be either possible, likely, or certain to vote for the PPC candidate (16.9% possible, 6.1% likely, 11.2% certain). 59% would not consider voting for the PPC candidate.
  • In Etobicoke North, the survey of 409 voters found that 29.9% of respondents would be either possible, likely, or certain to vote for the PPC candidate (9.4% possible, 5.2% likely, 15.3% certain). 2% would not consider voting for the PPC candidate.
  • In Pickering-Uxbridge, the survey of 504 voters found that 25.9% of respondents would be either possible, likely, or certain to vote for the PPC candidate (9.3% possible, 5.4% likely, 11.2% certain). 9% would not consider voting for the PPC candidate.
  • In Charleswood-St.-James-Assiniboia-Headingley, the survey of 508 voters found that 24.5% of respondents would be either possible, likely, or certain to vote for the PPC candidate (9.5% possible, 4.4% likely, 10.6% certain). 2% would not consider voting for the PPC candidate.

Third, regarding factor d. (information received from experts), the Commission obtained expert advice from Nanos Research.  It examined riding electoral outcomes for the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2015 federal elections in Canada and more specifically the margins of victory and levels of support needed to win in these past elections. Using this data, Nanos Research opined on the level of support required to have the possibility of winning a riding.  The results of this analysis revealed that if more than one of four voters in a riding considered voting for a party, using recent voting data, it might be possible to win a local election. Conversely, if fewer than 25 per cent of voters in a riding consider voting for a candidate or party, the likelihood to win would be low.  Upon review of this opinion, I conclude that where more than one of four voters in a riding considers voting for a party, that party has a reasonable chance to elect its candidate.

I wish to note that the Commission polled only four of 338 electoral districts, and in three of these four electoral districts more than one in four voters is considering voting for the PPC.  This may suggest that there are additional ridings beyond the four polled where the PPC may have current levels of support that provide it with a reasonable chance to elect its candidate.

Fourth, regarding factor b. (national polls), recent publicly available polls indicate support for the PPC in the range of 1 to 5%.  I also took note of the submission provided by the Conservative Party of Canada that electoral results over the last 70 years indicate the last time a party won a seat with less than 3% of the vote was in 1949.  I also note polling on Canadians' preferred Prime Minister, where Maxime Bernier was the response of 2% in one poll by Nanos Research and 7% in another by Abacus Data; polling by Léger where 52% of respondents indicated that Mr. Bernier should participate in the debates; and polling by Angus Reid indicating that 52% of respondents "do not have a party they will definitely support."

"Previous general election results"

"Previous general election results" is the third field of examination under criterion (iii)(b) of the OIC.  Although the PPC is a new party, I conclude that previous general election results should nevertheless be considered where possible but with some caution.

With regard to factor e. (performances in previous elections), I note that Maxime Bernier fared well in electability in his own riding and, though of lesser weight since it is only indirectly connected to general election results, within a previous party as a Cabinet Minister and as a close runner-up in the election of that party's leader.  However, and thus less persuasive, he is today the leader of a different party presenting a different profile to the electorate.  I also note that three PPC candidates are former Members of Parliament and three PPC have previously been elected at the municipal level, but again as members of a different party and thus less persuasive.


Overall, when considered as a whole, the factors set out above weigh in favour of including the PPC in the leaders' debates.  I have examined whether the PPC has a legitimate chance of electing more than one candidate in the upcoming election and have concluded that the PPC does have more than one candidate endorsed by the party with a legitimate chance to be elected.  Therefore, it is my view that the PPC meets criterion (iii)(b) of the OIC and as such, an invitation will be extended to its leader for the Commission's 2019 leaders' debates.

David Johnston
Debates Commissioner
September 16, 2019

Date modified: September 16, 2019