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Federal debate commission is a waste of public money

Author: 2022/02/09

This story was first published in the Telegraph-Journal on February 9th, 2022.

Say your backyard needs a new fence and your neighbours offer to pay for it. Chances are you would take that deal.

That’s what we’ve done historically with federal leaders’ debates. Large media organizations would cover the costs, and they’d haggle with the parties about how the debates should be organized.

Since 2018 though, the federal government has decided to make taxpayers pay for the debates, while leaving it up to the parties and large media organizations to haggle over the format with the bureaucrats at the Leaders’ Debates Commission.

It’s time to realize the experiment has failed and go back to the old model that included no expense for taxpayers.

The Leaders’ Debates Commission is costing us all a pretty penny.

Take the 2019 election for instance, the first one where the Leaders’ Debates Commission had its chance to shine. Paying for staff, consultants and debate organization cost all of us more than $3.7 million.

For the last campaign, costs seem to have jumped up as the commission got a $4.4-million budget this year.

But the costs aren’t limited to election years.

Even when there’s no election campaign, and therefore no debate to organize, taxpayers are still paying the salaries of the federal bureaucrats working for the debate commission and any retainer they may have with lawyers and consultants.

That’s how the Leaders’ Debates Commission spent $330,000 of our money in 2020-21, despite the fact no elections were held. The commission even spent more than $17,000 on performance bonuses for its employees.

And while the Leaders’ Debates Commission takes care of financing, it doesn’t exactly have special in-house expertise for producing debates. Rather, it contracts other organizations to do it.

For the 2019 election, it gave $1.7 million to the CBC to handle debate production. This covers all the technical aspects from set-design to on-site directing.

This hasn’t changed as of the last election, with the CBC billing the debates commission $2 million for both French and English debates this year.

It hasn’t exactly done a stellar job at organizing those either. There was nearly as much ink spilled over the poor performance of the Leaders’ Debates Commission as there was about what the politicians were saying.

Case in point, the Globe and Mail’s TV critic John Doyle dedicated an entire column to it, calling it “an example of utter failure in Canadian television.”

Over at the Toronto Sun, Lorrie Goldstein called it “a farce,” adding “it’s time to drive a stake through the heart of Canada’s Leaders’ Debates Commission.”

And the Toronto Star’s Robin Sears said of the debate organizers that they “should have been removed from the debate stage.”

And we could go on.

It’s not like leaders’ debates would disappear without the commission. Prior to its creation in 2018, large media broadcasters would typically band together to organize federal leaders’ debates.

In the 2015 election for instance, Canadian voters got to see party leaders face-off in five different debates – two in French and three in English – organized independently by various media outlets.

Some organizations still organize debates outside of the Leaders’ Debates Commission. That’s why French Canadians got two French debates in the last election, with one organized by the federal bureaucracy, and another organized independently by Quebec media group TVA.

What has changed is that instead of having the costs borne by large media organizations who would typically pay for it, it is now our collective burden to share.

That’s what led some members of Parliament like Corey Tochor to wonder why exactly we’ve been paying for something the private sector was more than happy to pay for in the past.

As the federal government looks at ways to cut its $144.5-billion deficit, it can’t afford to overlook any source of savings. Spending $4.4 million per year in taxpayers’ funds to do something the private sector has been willing to do for free for the past few decades should be at the top of the list.