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).Recommend this Post