Thursday, March 31, 2011

Debates, Debates, Let's Have More Debates!

Most of my current students are too young to remember the now infamous election debate clashes between Brian Mulroney and John Turner. So I like to show them the Free Trade Clash from 1988 or the patronage kerfuffle of 1984. Both debates were widely acknowledged as game-changers for their respective campaigns, with Mulroney the winner of '84 and Turner in '88. Ever since those debates, pundits have longed for a return to this clear-cut era where there were fewer candidates on the podium, and thus a greater chance of a knock-out blow, or certainly longer periods of direct confrontation. (Lest I be accused of the sin of omission, both debates also featured NDP leader Ed Broadbent, a solid debater in his own right).

And so here we are in the same position as we were in 2008, debating whether Green Party leader Elizabeth May should be allowed in the Consortium-managed leadership debates. (Is it just me, or does Consortium sound vaguely ominous and evil.) And even if she isn't allowed in, should we perhaps also have an Ignatieff vs. Harper one-on-one debate, since most experts think these are the two most likely candidates to form the next government? Herewith, my two cents.

As a supporter of some variant of proportional representation, I support May's inclusion in an all-leader debate. Given that the Greens won over 900,000 votes in the last election, about 6% of the total vote, under pretty much any system of proportional representation or mixed-member proportional system they would currently have seats in the House of Commons. The fact that they do not hold an elected seat is the excuse being advanced by the Consortium for their exclusion. To my mind, the fact that our first-past-the-post system is an antiquated electoral model that ill-reflects actual voting patterns is not a valid excuse to exclude the Greens. This position, incidentally, is supported by Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former chief electoral officer for the country. It is a decision which only benefits those who are the current victors under the status quo. Moreover, if the Bloc, which doesn't even run candidates in three-quarters of the country's riding, is permitted in the national leaders' debates, then the Greens, which run in all ridings, definitely should be included.

That's my ethical, principled position. Now for the other side, which is how I feel as a television viewer. I found the five-leader debates of 2008 to be tedious and long-winded. Too much time was taken up with the initial series of statements about each issue, and then a number of, to my mind, tedious and dreary question exchanges between pairs of candidates who agreed with each other. The Dion-May and Layton-Duceppe interchanges, in particular, tended to drag on. With five candidates, and a limited time frame, there is not much opportunity for the front-runners to confront each other, but the time allocated to each exchange is not reflective of the relative standing of the parties in the polls (and, presumably, viewer interest). With this in mind, I'd love to see a series of one-on-one exchanges, such as the one that Michael Ignatieff was proposing to Stephen Harper. I think many voters might find these more compelling to watch, as they would allow for more sustained and direct interaction between the leaders. So by all means, I'd support having these types of exchanges in addition to the all-leaders forum.

Finally, with respect to the events of the past couple of days, I think Michael Ignatieff was smart both to propose the one-on-one debate with Stephen Harper, and to avoid the snare of accepting this encounter in lieu of the all-party debate. Ignatieff is going to be counting on soft NDP and Green support in this election, and will need to avoid looking like he is disdainful of those parties. But nor will I be surprised if Harper does not cave on this issue. It's to his benefit to limit the number of chances that the opposition leaders have to take him on directly. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't back the inclusion of the Greens in the debate. Every minute that Elizabeth May gets on stage is one less that Layton and Ignatieff have, which only hurts them. The front-runner could have afforded to appear to be magnanimous, and it probably would have helped him in the long run (although perhaps not Gary Lunn).

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At 9:22 am, Anonymous Eamon said...

I would agree with your proportional representation perspective if that was how our elections were actually run, but until that time, I would rather not have May in the debates. Without a seat in the House I find it difficult to differentiate between May's claim to a place in the debate and the Communist Party, or the Marxist-Leninists. At least Duceppe has seats, and if he isn't allowed to participate in the debates then he may actually lose seats, which isn't totally fair.

I wouldn't mind the Greens being in the debates if they had even one seat, but with their current strategy they will never get there. The Green strategists are idiots. RUN MAY IN GUELPH! In 2008 the Green candidate came 3rd, losing by only 10% (6000 votes), in a riding where green votes were siphoned off by the Grits (I know, I participated). In Saanich she is up against Gary Lunn, a semi-important conservative who beat the Greens in the last election by over 30% (20,000 votes). Just like when she ran against Peter McKay, she has no chance. If she focused on getting a seat rather than making a statement she would be able to promote her party through parliamentary scrums and on the House floor rather than from the outside, a much greater benefit than being in the debate. Instead we keep having a stupid debate over whether she should be in the debates while her party continues to fail in the most basic aspect of politics - getting elected.

At 10:06 am, Blogger Matt said...


I find the "seat in the house" argument difficult to swallow because it only means that a party needs support in 1 of 308 ridings to be in the leaders' debates. Could Andre Arthur get to represent the Independent party? Or have the Gorgeous Guergises? By pretty much any international standard, earning more than 5% of the popular vote would entitle the Greens to representation in a PR system - they are leaps and bounds ahead of the Marxist-Leninists et al.

I'm also not advocating excluding Duceppe, although his claim to "national leader" status is dubious given that his party doesn't run outside of Quebec.

I totally agree with you that May's electoral strategy is pinheaded. She would have stood a much better chance in a riding like Guelph or Owen Sound. Alas, she keeps running in terrible locations, which does the party no good.

At 3:06 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

Duceppe is the head of a national party, as long as you accept Canada as two nations (even though it really had three founding nations). I'm kidding, of course.

I think the real issue that comes out of all of this is that there needs to be some sort of rule. The debate issue is currently hijacking more important issues when, if we had a rule saying that if you achieved over 5% last election then you get in, we could have an easy resolution. Don't we already have rules for the vote subsidy (like, you must get over a certain percentage to qualify)? Why not just model it after that? That is, if the subsidy is around in by the next election.

I think the other problem May has is that she parachutes everywhere. First it was London, then Central Nova, now Saanich. Apparently she doesn't realize that it is the local vote that puts you in office, and that few locals will vote for someone they don't really know. She really needs to settle in Guelph, live in the community for the next 3-4 years, and run in the election once she has built a profile. It is the only way to grow the Greens.

At 10:21 pm, Blogger Wilf Day said...

"Under pretty much any system of proportional representation or mixed-member proportional system they (Greens) would currently have seats in the House of Commons." Indeed. Under the system recommended by the Law Commission of Canada, depending how the regions were laid out, the Greens would likely have elected an MP from Peel-Halton-York-Guelph: maybe Mike Nagy from Guelph, Ard Van Leeuwen from Caledon, Blake Poland from Oakville or Glenn Hubbers from Aurora?


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