On 18 April 2021, by letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the Free National Movement was invited by the University of The Bahamas in association with Verizon Media to participate in a series of debates, starting with a debate on Youth issues. The Prime Minister did not respond to the said letter.
Subsequently the National Chairman of the FNM was directly approached on the matter. The Chairman made a preliminary engagement and submitted the name of a proposed debater to represent the Party.
Upon closer scrutiny of documentation and written proposals submitted by the proposers of the debate, a number of critical defects in the proposed format of debates were identified by the FNM Campaign Committee, who so advised the Chairman.
Among the defects was, firstly, the fact that only one, for profit, media house would be involved in producing the event, which was immediately considered to be unfair to other for profit media houses.
Secondly, upon review of the practices both in our Caribbean region and in Canada and the United Kingdom, it also became clear that the proposed format of the debates was a great departure from the standards set in other jurisdictions, each of which hails from the Westminster system.
In Jamaica there is an independent commission, the Jamaica Debates Commission, formed by the equal participation of the Media Association of Jamaica and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce. Hence there is the equal participation of all news media in Jamaica, which is also well balanced by civil society in-put.
Further, the participants in the debate are limited to Registered Political Parties who have obtained either of the following:
(1) At least one (1) member in the House of Representatives;
(2) Not less than 5% of the votes in the last elections; or
(3) Not less than 8% approval ratings in an independent national poll by a reputable polling agency approved in advance by the Commission.
In Canada there is an independent Government Agency established under the Canadian Privy Council and headed by a former Governor-General of Canada. It appoints a seven-member Board of Directors and makes a Report to Parliament after every general election.
The Commission clearly sets out and enforces the criteria for inclusion in debates, with parties having to satisfy at least two of the following three criteria to take part:
A party must have at least one MP elected under the party’s banner in the House of Commons at dissolution.
A party must run candidates in at least 90% of constituencies.
A party must have obtained at least 4% of the vote at the previous election, or be considered by the commissioner – on the basis of public opinion polls – to have a legitimate chance of electing some of its members to the Commons.
Having regard to these precedents, and the fact a number of parties, or issue-oriented political groups, which cannot be shown to meet any of the Jamaican or Canadian requirements, were listed as participants by the local organizers of these proposed debates, the FNM Campaign Committee strongly advised against participation, which advice was accepted by the National Chairman.
Further, it is important to note that electoral debates in Jamaica and Canada only occur after Parliament has been dissolved and elections have been called.
Any debate process should ensure both the dignity and fairness of any electoral debates, as well as providing a level playing field to each and every media house, so as to ensure a high quality and informative series of debates for the benefit of every Bahamian, once the House of Assembly has been dissolved and general elections called.