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PPC Leader Maxime Bernier invited to two broadcast debates

Last Updated Sep 16, 2019 at 4:27 pm EDT

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People's Party of Canada, speaks at the launch of his campaign Sunday, August 25, 2019 in Sainte-Marie, Que. Bernier is blaming a "totalitarian leftist mob" for the decision to take down billboards promoting his controversial stance on immigration.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier secured an invitation Monday to two official leaders’ debates in October.

The Leaders’ Debates Commission, an independent body formed by the federal government to organize the two debates, said Bernier’s party has a “legitimate” chance of electing members in more than one seat, a decision that drew immediate objections from the Conservatives and New Democrats.

Bernier had previously been denied the chance to participate because the commission found his party did not meet at least two of three criteria for participation:

– having at least one MP elected as a member of that party;

– running candidates in at least 90 per cent of Canada’s 338 ridings; and/or

– having won at least four per cent of the popular vote in the last election or having a legitimate chance at electing candidates

Bernier is the party’s lone MP but he was elected as a Conservative. The People’s Party is running candidates in more than 90 per cent of Canada’s ridings. But the debates commission initially ruled that the party didn’t stand a legitimate shot at electing more than one candidate and told Bernier he was out.

After giving the party more time to provide further evidence and to bring the decision closer to the date of the actual election, debates commissioner and former governor general David Johnston said the party does in fact have a “reasonable chance” at winning multiple seats.

“That was the right decision,” Bernier said in a video posted to Twitter soon after the news.

The Conservatives accused Johnston of bias against them.

“”It’s no big surprise that Justin Trudeau’s hand-picked debate panel used a Liberal-friendly pollster who attacks Andrew Scheer to ultimately justify Mr. Bernier’s attendance at the debate,” press secretary Daniel Schow said by email. “Trudeau has been stacking the deck for months, using the power of his office to tilt the playing field in his favour for this election.”

The New Democrats objected to Bernier’s inclusion for a different reason.

“The rise of extremism, hate speech and white supremacy is real threat to our country,” New Democrat spokesperson Melanie Richer said in an emailed statement. “Leaders have a responsibility to not feed this problem, but this is exactly what Maxime Bernier is doing. We have seen what the People’s Party did during a by-election and it is wrong. We should not give them a national platform. We think this was the wrong decision.”

The decision hinged on several factors, including the party’s membership count, its strong presence in national media and recent polling numbers, Johnston said in a statement made public Monday.

Johnston also noted the difficulty of projecting at this point whether the party has a chance to win multiple seats, given the tendency for public support to change throughout a campaign.

But following an assessment of the recent political context and past election result trends, Johnston concluded “it is possible that the PPC’s support may change positively over the course of the upcoming campaign.”

On the question of more recent polling data, the debates commission worked with the research firm EKOS to survey four ridings the PPC flagged as having prominent candidates with a chance of victory.

The resulting polling found substantial minorities of people in those four ridings who said it was “possible, likely, or certain” they would vote for the PPC candidate.

The level of potential support broke down to 34.1 per cent of respondents in Nipissing-Timiskaming, 29.9 per cent in Etobicoke North and 25.9 per cent in Pickering-Uxbridge, all in Ontario, and 24.5 per cent in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingly, in Manitoba.

The commission also asked polling firm Nanos Research for an opinion on what level of support was needed to win a riding. Based on past electoral results, Nanos responded that parties had a chance of winning a seat if they garnered more than 25-per-cent support.

“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,” Johnston said.

The debates commissioner also took into account Bernier’s personal popularity in his own riding of Beauce, Que., as well as a submission from the Conservatives that no party has won a seat with national support under three per cent since 1949.

Johnston noted the decision-making process for determining inclusion was “complex” and required interpretation of what was meant by “legitimate chance,” and how to consider multiple factors – some of which were quantifiable and some which were not.

Bernier will join the leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, Bloc and Greens in two debates: an event in English on Oct. 7 and a French-language debate Oct. 10.