The case for democratic debate

For the record. I agree with Tony Burman, former head of CBC news, that it is time for Canadians to “pull the plug” on the Consortium.

The case for democratic debate – by ELIZABETH MAY
Globe and Mail Update
Published Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011 6:00AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011 11:14AM EDT

It is hard to believe that there is even a question about participation of the Green Party of Canada in the televised leaders’ debate.

We have precedent on our side. We have reason on our side. Against our participation stands an unregulated, ad hoc process that makes decisions without benefit of rules or criteria.

Canadians have come to expect the national leaders debates as part of the democratic process. In 2008, the Canadian public responded with outrage when it became known that the leader of the Green Party was not to be allowed to participate due to threats from two leaders that they would not show up if I was included. In an inspiring demonstration of non-partisan fury, Canadians forced those leaders to back down, and then the television network executives also relented.

In the midst of the controversy, the former head of the so-called Broadcast Consortium, as the news directors from CBC, CTV, Global, TVA and Radio Canada style themselves when making all the decisions about the leaders’ debate, wrote a scathing attack on the process. Tony Burman was former head of CBC news and he urged that Canadians “pull the plug” on the Consortium. He wrote that the process was entirely arbitrary and should be replaced with a commission, as in the U.S., to run debates independent of the journalists who cover the debates. He also disclosed that the threat from Stephen Harper to refuse to participate in the debates had been made in January 2007 and had become the “elephant in the room.” Moving an elephant is not easy. But the Canadian public did so.

Canadians were outraged then for many reasons. Those reasons still apply. How can a group of five television executives decide to exclude a party running in 308 ridings when they include a party that can never form government as it runs in only one province? How can debates, a critical part of the democratic process, operate in such a high-handed and arbitrary fashion? How can a party with the support of one in 10 Canadians be excluded? And most fundamentally, how can TV executives tell Canadians that a vote for Green candidates is not a real choice? That is in fact what they are doing. Far from facilitating a full and fair discussion in a democracy, they are interfering in democracy by dictating what choices are worth making.

We were the only party in 2008 to receive more votes than in 2006. We are the only party likely to raise important issues, consistently ignored by others. We are the only party committed to “high road” politics, to rejecting the politics of negativity, the attack ads and the smears.

Canadians are fair minded. Over 70 per cent in poll after poll have argued that the Greens should be included. This is not because 70 per cent of Canadians plan to vote Green, but because Canadians recognize that democracy is healthier when all voices are heard. Canadians know when something is unfair and wrong. This decision will be pilloried by Canadians from coast to coast because it offends our basic sense of decency and fair play.

The last line of my book, Losing Confidence: Power, politics and the crisis in Canadian democracy was “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Democracy is not a sport at all. It is not a game. It is the lifeblood of a healthy society. This decision will not stand. It is anti-democratic and Canadians will make their views on this abundantly clear. Democracy will prevail.

Elizabeth May is Leader of the Green Party of Canada


Editorial: May should be at the table


The broadcast consortium has every right to choose which leaders it invites to its televised debates. The choice not to invite Elizabeth May was a bad one.

The Green party leader was initially excluded from the debates in 2008, but the leaders of the other parties caved to public opinion and said they wanted her there. This time, the other parties aren’t standing in her way, at least not in public.

Not every debate has to include all the leaders — indeed, the prospect of a standoff between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff is exciting. But whenever the four other leaders are at the table, May’s absence would be notable and strange.

The Green party might not be represented in the House of Commons, but that is a failing of our electoral system which punishes parties whose support is spread across the country, rewarding those who appeal strongly in some regions and not at all elsewhere — such as the Bloc Québécois, which polls within a few points of the Green party. Indeed, the main concerns of the Green party are more worthy of inclusion in a national debate than the main concerns of the Bloc.

In that 2008 election, the Greens got almost seven per cent of the vote, and recent polling puts them at roughly the same level — with some polls suggesting as many as one in 10 Canadians is planning to choose Green.

Even Canadians who aren’t planning to vote for May’s candidates might be interested in what she has to say — especially given that quirk of the first-past-the-post system, which might discourage supporters from throwing away their votes. It’s bizarre that the consortium thought there wouldn’t be enough interest in May’s opinions to include her.

She contributed to the 2008 debates, and was, in fact, a refreshing addition. May comes across as more genuine than the other leaders — with the possible exception of Gilles Duceppe, whose wit also made even the English-language debate more watchable.

So there’s a lot to be said for an event that puts the five of them around a table. Of course there are disadvantages to such a big group, too, but there’s nothing stopping broadcasters — or anyone else, in the Internet age — from holding one-on-one debates to get deeper into the issues and expose differences of personality. It looks like a standoff between Harper and Ignatieff is in the works, and given their status at the front of the pack, that would serve voters. Other pairings could be illuminating too — a debate between Jack Layton and Elizabeth May on environmental policy, for example.


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