Time to end the big party control of leaders’ debates

Ever since the first televised leaders debate in 1968, the conduct of debates during Canadian elections has relied on a loose set of mysterious rules employed by the nation’s largest broadcasters, tempered by an unhealthy degree of backroom bargaining by the larger parties.    As Andrew Coyne once described the 2011 leaders’ debate decision to exclude the Green Party, it was as though the major networks had met with GM, Ford and Chrysler and decided “no more advertising for Toyota.”

After the anti-democratic efforts of the big parties to keep the Greens out in 2008 and 2011, I didn’t think the situation could get worse – until it did.

In 2015, it was obvious that the Green Party had met any condition or criterion ever raised as part of the “rules” for participation in the major national televised leaders’ debates.  We had an elected MP in the House. We ran in every part of Canada – although the Bloc never did.  We were playing a consistent role in the political life of Canadians. And indeed, the national consortium of broadcasters who run the debates did indeed invite the Green Party to the two planned national debates.

The debates really matter to a political party in Canada.  National media coverage of the parties and their leaders is directly related to inclusion in the debates. And debates really matter to Canadian voters.  It is a mass national event, shared simultaneously.  Historically it has turned electoral fortunes.   The emergence of small, corporate events available on-line in the 2015 election served as cover for the collusion that eliminated the major nationally broadcast English language leaders’ debate.

In 2015, in order to keep the debates a Green-free zone, the Conservatives and the NDP tried a new gambit.  If it sounds fanciful that the Conservative and NDP worked together to keep the Green Party out of the 2015 election debates, first recall that they did so in 2008.  Both the Conservatives and the NDP told the consortium privately that if the Green Party was included, their leaders would not.  Only when the threats were exposed did public pressure lead the NDP and then the Conservatives to cave.  In 2011, all the major parties met privately with the consortium in advance of the election.  In 2011, all the major parties, including the Bloc, pushed to keep Greens out.  When the Consortium invited the Green Party to the 2015 debates, neither the Conservatives nor the NDP were pleased.  Green Party representatives in the room sensed this from the very earliest debate planning meeting, as the Conservative and NDP representatives sat together, kept close-mouthed, and even displayed the same body-language.  First the Conservatives and then the NDP pulled out of the major English language leaders debate – normally broadcast by CBC, CTV and Global.  Instead they accepted invitations from newly organized debates, without any compulsion to observe the criteria of the previous 45 years. Of the five debates that took place, none were broadcast in English on television. And the Green Party was only included in 2 of the five.

For the first time in decades, Canadian voters were deprived the opportunity to watch the major national party leaders face off on live national English television.  The boycott strategy worked to the extent that there was barely a mention in the mainstream media that the national debate would be cancelled if neither Mulcair nor Harper showed up.  Regardless of the impact on political parties, voters were deprived of what most considered an institution – a major nationally broadcast English language debate. The levels of undecided voters remained undecided right up to the advance polls, I suggest, because they were waiting for something that never came – a debate between all the leaders.  In the end, votes were swayed based on the Liberals apparent momentum.  Voters wanting to get rid of Stephen Harper voted strategically. Policy and issues inevitably suffered from the cancellation of the major debate.

The inclusion in the letter of mandate to the Minister of Democratic Institutions to pursue reform of leaders’ debates was as surprising as it was welcome.  Minister Monsef is specifically mandated to “bring forward options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders’ debates…to improve Canadians’ knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions.”

I propose the following as key features for fair and inclusive leaders’ debates.

Firstly, let’s remember that in Westminster Parliamentary Democracies, we do not elect a prime minister.   Let’s follow the advice of the Queens University Centre for the Study of Democracy.  The Centre published recommendations in September 2009 calling for more debates, but debates that featured more than party leaders.  Let each party put forward their specialist/spokesperson in key areas of public policy to hold debates on social policy, environment, foreign policy etc.

Secondly, ensure that the main leaders’ debates have published consistent and transparent criteria. Shut down the backdoor to Big Party manipulation.   In 2007, the Green Party suggested the following three criteria as a sliding scale, where two out of three would ensure inclusion of the party leader in national televised debates – in English and in French.  To be included a party must: have an elected MP in the House, run in all or nearly all ridings in Canada, and/or have 4% of the vote in the previous election.

These sliding criteria meet the political reality of Canada.  The Bloc would have been included – even though the party has never run a candidate outside Quebec.  The Green Party would have been included in 2008 even without an elected MP, as well as in 2011.  Clear rules will reduce the monkey-business that has gone on in recent years.

Lastly, enshrining leaders debates in legislation would have the advantage of making participation compulsory.  Let’s ensure that future prime ministers do not have the option of saying, “play my way or I’ll take my bat and my ball and go home.” The debates are not for the politicians. They are to serve the interests of the voters to cast an informed vote.  Reform is long over-due.

Originally published in Policy Options.