30 March 2011

Leaders’ Debate: Players Only Need Apply

As the first full week of the Canadian election campaign unfolds, one interesting controversy — apart from what constitutes ‘a coalition’ — concerns the yet-to-be finalised leaders’ debate. Already, though, we have been told by the media consortium that runs this staple of prime time info-tainment that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green party, will not be invited.

May’s exclusion has elicited the usual round of anguish from political commentators. Denunciations of this ‘travesty of justice’ and ‘slur to the democratic process’ abound. Not surprisingly, the Green’s leader has hired a lawyer to overturn the decision, saying ‘This is an unacceptable, outrageous, high-handed attempt to shut down democracy in this country.’ Yet, a few voices are willing to run counter to prevailing opinion, and offer a dissenting view.

David Akin, the National Bureau Chief for Sun Media, tweeted: ‘Excellent decision by the networks. The barrier to clear is simple: Get an MP; get in the debates.’ Whereas Andrew Potter, who writes for Maclean’s magazine, opines
I’m genuinely agnostic on the question of whether May should be there; I think there are defensible arguments to be made for both sides. But the question over whether to include her or not contains a tacit assumption, viz., that the leaders’ debates—as currently run—are themselves worthy democratic exercises. I think they are not.
Allow me to join them with a few thoughts of my own.

First: The problem lies in nomenclature: the leaders’ debates. In fact, what is really at issue in this forum is the character of the party — and, perhaps as important, the party leader — that will form the next Government of Canada.

Second: From this perspective, then, only those leaders who have a reasonable chance of forming the next government ought to be seated at the debate table. (As events currently stand, while both main leaders have made all the necessary, pro forma statements protesting their willingness for an open debate forum, Michael Ignatieff has signalled his willingness to debate Stephen Harper one-on-one, a challenge which the Prime Minister has taken up.)

Third: The only exception to this guideline, given the nature of our Westminster parliamentary democracy and the likelihood of minority governments — where no one party receives the majority of seats in the House of Commons — is to also invite the leaders of parties who may have a hand in deciding which party forms the next government; participating, perhaps, in a reduced capacity. (I confess this last point admits of great variation.)

Under this framework, it is easy to see why both the Conservative party and the Liberal party are, as a matter of course, invited to the leaders’ debate. History has shown that either one or the other becomes prime minister. It is also clear, from past experience, why the leaders of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois are asked to join the forum. But it is not clear why the leader of the Green party should also have a voice, given the above criterion: that of forming, or of influencing the formation of, the next federal ministry.

Based solely on past election returns, Green MPs in the House are unlikely to have a say in who will become the next prime minister. Indeed, the party does not currently have any seats in Parliament. Were they to break this record of underachievement and elect a significant number of members, and if no party received a majority of seats in the House so that negotiations would have to be undertaken — either in a formal coalition or by way of agreement to throw support behind a party that would enjoy the confidence of the House — then at that time would the Greens have an active role. But not before.

The alternative is to permit anyone who leads a recognised political party (by Elections Canada registration standards) to enter the fray, or to devise arbitrary figures encompassing number of sitting MPs and vote percentages from the last election. What would result — as has been witnessed from previous encounters where the doors were thrown open — is an amorphous free-for-all with minor players competing for attention while major players (especially those unwilling to risk favourable polling numbers) wait to run down the clock.

For any debate format to be effective the two main contenders for office must be allowed an opportunity to criticise each other’s record and campaign platform and to defend their own. This is why the John Turner-Brian Mulroney debates of 1984 and 1988 were so decisive and memorable. Anything else is a distraction.

The problem at present partly involves the confusion that arises when there are no hard-and-fast guidelines in determining the representation at these leaders’ debates (made more obscure by the profusion of parties). Such rules that exist obviously don’t garner widespread respect. Instead, too much time is being expended arguing about the minutiae of party standings, vote percentages, public outpourings of umbrage and indignation, &c. — much of it with ulterior motives, either by partisan political jockeying or by media requirements to fill air time and newspaper columns. We are encouraged not to see the forest for the trees.

Were we to focus, rather, on the true purpose of the leaders’ debates — Who will be Her Majesty’s first minister for the Dominion of Canada? — then the miasma of electoral obfuscation would dissipate. Invite only those leaders who will either directly command or indirectly mould the confidence of the 41st Parliament of Canada, and let all others engage from the periphery, much as they would in the House itself.