It’s a little bit dangerous to let this issue take too much attention away from the substance of the election. We have a government to defeat, and our complaints, however legitimate, about the broadcast consortium will not help us unseat Stephen Harper. They might not even be that useful in getting Elizabeth May her seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands. So while I will continue to sign every petition, join every Facebook group, attend every local rally and re-tweet the occasional relevant tweet about the issue (and so should you), this will be my last blog post about the leaders’ debates. A few posts ago, I discussed what would constitute a good criterion for inclusion in the debates. This time, I’ll be considering why having seats in the House of Commons is a bad one.
The fundamental purpose of democracy is to ensure that the leaders of a nation are accountable to its people. Obvious fact is obvious, I know, but bear with me. Accountability means that no government, opposition, or combination thereof cannot do something wildly unpopular and get away with it. Bearing that in mind, let’s imagine how the political landscape would look if the government did do something that really made the country furious. Arguably the country should already be furious due to the Harper Government’s being found in contempt of parliament, but for some reason that hasn’t stirred up the outrage you might hope. So I’m going to imagine something a bit more extreme: Suppose that as a result of a concerted and well-financed effort by the powerful Nacho lobby, all of the parties in the House of Commons unanimously voted to ban poutine.
Now I don’t actually like poutine, so this would not concern me too much. But I think it’s safe to say that the public response to such a vote would make the Egyptian protests look like a routine Sunday in my hometown of Markham, Ontario. Any remotely democratic election called after such a despotic decision would radically re-shape the house of Commons. Presumably, a new Drunken Munchies Party of Canada* would emerge to represent the real will of the people. A just system would see a party with such a popular position elected to a majority government.
Here’s the problem: This party would face a significant disadvantage in the campaign. They would lack the funding of the established parties, particularly in the form of the per-vote subsidy. They would need to build up a base from scratch, and they would need to woo enough of the political class to organize an effective campaign. Finally and most pertintently, by the same criterion being used to exclude Elizabeth May, the Drunken Munchies Party of Canada would not be able to participate in the leaders’ debates. This would be a significant impediment to their task of representing the Canadian desire for greasy late-night snacks.
It is impossible to facilitate a Federal election campaign with a totally level playing field. Different parties will have different amounts of funding, different numbers of volunteers, and different public perception, regardless of their policies. A debate should be one of the few campaign stops that is entirely fair. There is no good reason for any electoral institution to give strategic advantage to those parties that have already been elected, because there is no reason to suppose that any one of the parties with seats in the house necessarily has the public’s best interests at heart. I propose that the Drunken Munchies Party of Canada be used as a philosophical test for the democratic effectiveness of any Canadian political institution. By excluding parties without seats in the house, the Consortium of Broadcasters that hosts the debate fails this test, and should therefore be abolished in favour of public debates run by Elections Canada.
*Given that Poutine is Quebecois, it might be more appropriate for it to be called “Le Parti Canadien de Goutes Sou”