Meta-Debates

Posted on March 31, 2011

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Debates about debates aren’t new in Canadian Federal politics. You may recall that the broadcast consortium that hosts the Federal leaders debate tried to exclude Elizabeth May during the 2008 election campaign. Now it’s happening again. With the addition of debate drama to the already established coalition drama, this campaign is shaping up to be a re-run of that campaign*. We should really move on. When we had this debate in 2008, Elizabeth May won, and went on to win the actual televised debate as well. Maybe that’s why Stephen Harper is dodging the issue.

But so long as this is once again at issue, I might as well wade into the fray. First, an important fact: The broadcast consortium is a private entity, so the televised leaders’ debate is more television show than public institution. This would be sketchy even if they were not arbitrarily excluding federal leaders. The hosts of the debate get to determine the questions the leaders will be asked, the format of the discussion, and the way the leaders look on TV. Given that the debates can a lot of minds, that is a tremendous amount of political power that no private interest should hold. I propose that debates be held by Elections Canada using what I like to call the NHL model. The National Hockey League hosts hockey games, which the television networks can pay a fee to broadcast. Similarly, Elections Canada could host debates which the various broadcasters which presently make up the consortium could pay a fee to broadcast. This would ensure fair participation. Can you imagine if the NHL were run by CTV, and they chose the Playoff Teams based on their TV ratings? Fans would be outraged. Voters should feel the same way about Elizabeth May’s exclusion. Let’s make election debates a public service.

But even if the debates were public, we are still left with the problem of how we fairly decide on participants. A quick look at the Wikipedia page for the 2008 election reveals that nineteen parties ran in that election. As much as I would love to see the leader of the Neo-Rhino party speak his undoubtedly hilarious mind on national television, nineteen candidates is probably a little bit unmanageable. So where do you draw the line?

All campaign institutions and events must exist primarily to help the voters make an informed vote. The leaders’ debates particular role in this is to show how the parties compare to one another on a national level. It therefore makes sense that the parties represented should be all the parties which have a candidate in every riding. This ensures that regardless of their riding, voters will have something to gain from hearing the particular leaders talk. This is a pretty good line to draw: It excludes all the fringe parties, while keeping all the major parties regardless of their performance the last time around. Unfortunately, it also excludes the Bloc Quebecois, so perhaps the criteria should be two-fold: Any party that has candidates in every riding, OR has at least one MP in the House of Commons, gets a seat for their leader in the debate. This could be applied fairly and impartially by Elections Canada.

If the debates are for the public good, then they should represent all the parties that Canadians may be voting for. If, on the other hand, they are a for-profit broadcast journalism project, then it’s little more than a really sneaky campaign contribution for the parties of the leaders who are invited.

A side-note: Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper are considering the possibility of a one-on-one debate. I’m conflicted about this. On the one hand, it would allow Ignatieff a platform to directly dismantle the smears against him and demonstrate Harper’s obsession with negative politics. On the other hand, it would help Ignatieff pretend that his party is the only alternative to the Conservatives, and it would give Harper ammunition for continued shrill insistences that Ignatieff is planning a coalition. I think I’ll sleep on it.

*I categorically refuse to follow opinion journalism convention and write “d_ja _ vu  _ll  ov_r _g_in”, because it is one of my least favourite redundant phrases.

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