Squeezing Discourse At The Debate Level

April 1, 2011

I won’t lie. When I came across a Tweet that read: Pg 41. RT @kady: Btw, given the May kerfuffle, an interesting paper on electoral debate reform (warning: PDF): http://bit.ly/fF1s7A #elxn41 from @garryoakgirl I understood it as ‘an interesting paper on electoral reform’. What with being the resident expert on electoral reform and all that. Imagine my disappointment when I went to all the trouble of downloading it, and sat to read it with red pen and highlighter in hand only to discover it was in fact a 60-odd page report written by Michelle Rogers at Queen’s University’s Centre For The Study of Democracy on ‘electoral debate reform’.

Oh man, what a waste of paper and toner! Debates are debates, right? I’m all about the electoral reform, the complete package. Full on proportional representation, etc., etc.

Yeah well, I defy anyone to take a look at Ms. Rogers’ report and not have their blood boiling by page 23. One might draw a line, if one were so inclined and had a writing utensil and straight edge, between our lack of truly representational government and our lack of democratic leaders debates. It might be a bit of a stretch but I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that stifling wider debate on the campaign trail leads to a narrower discussion of issues after the election. If we don’t hear all the voices out there asking for our votes, how can we make an informed decision when casting our ballots? And if we don’t make an informed decision when casting our ballots, how can we get truly representative government?

And how do I make a seamless transition from the above paragraph to my overview of the report? Let’s pretend I just did.

In televised debates, there are 3 interests to be served. The party/candidate whose main concern is being represented fairly and delivering an appealing, compelling persona that will increase voters’ positive perception of them and the likelihood of securing their vote. There’s the media who want good television, must see TV. And finally, the public.

All three coming together in the hopes of heightened public awareness and engagement in the political process.

And yet… and yet, the numbers in terms of voter turnout suggest that’s not happening. Was it something we said? Apathy and cynicism rather then engagement reigns.

Perhaps it’s because in the triumvirate of interests that constitute televised debates, the public is pretty well an afterthought. The logistics of electoral debates – the whens, wheres, the whos, the how manys — are ironed out far from the voters’ view, behind closed doors between what is called the Broadcast Consortium and representatives of the parties. The parties, of course, said Broadcast Consortium deems worthy of inclusion. Two of the three stakeholders, to use the parlance of our times, in the debates process decide on everything while the third gets to watch the result on TV. Maybe we’ll let you ask a question or two, heavily vetted naturally.

How does that arrangement foster democracy and participation? As we witnessed last year during Toronto’s mayoral campaign, television networks arbitrarily and summarily determined who were to be considered viable or serious candidates with little reasoning beyond, well, we’ve heard of them before or somebody who’s somebody has heard of them before. From the very beginning. There was no winnowing down along the way. No clicking the refresh button to incorporate any changes on the campaign landscape. Probably because the only changes that happened happened within the bubble of contenders the media created from the outset. It was all self-fulfilling because it’s designed to be self-fulfilling.

Other countries have independent, non-partisan bodies in place to deal with political debates. A cross section of the public that isn’t made up entirely of network executives and backroom politicos. The intention is to designate a group to make decisions based on what’s best for all parties involved, politicians, media and voters, not just the most powerful of the three.

Such a body was suggested way back in the 90s in a report done for the Lortie Commission. Yet it and a number of other recommendations never made it to the final cut which ostensibly upheld the status quo. Established parties and network executives know best. Nothing to see here, carry on about your business, ladies and gentlemen. A surprise result, I know, for a government commission.

And here we are, nearly 20 years later and the debate still continues to be framed by very narrow special interests. Elizabeth May’s exclusion from the leadership debate this week was not the first time for the Green Party, nor was it in 2008. Way back in 1988 after the election that year, the party took the CBC et al to court because it had been turned away from the leaders’ debate at that time. It lost and that seems to be the measure we’re still using to keep them from the table.

But much has changed since then. The Green Party suggested a method that could be used to determine eligibility which seems fair and reasonable. A 3 of 4 qualifying scheme, like determining CanCon. To be included in a televised leaders debate a party must possess 3 of either i) having an elected MP; ii) be running candidates in all ridings; iii) be federally funded; iv) have at least 5% support in national opinion polls. Now, I’d reduce it even further and say that inclusion would be predicted on having 2 of these 3: an elected MP or running candidates in all ridings or be federally funded since funding is based on achieving a certain percentage of the popular vote.

This idea we tightly hold onto of the Green Party being fringe simply comes from the result of our antiquated and hopelessly undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system. Where true proportional representation is in force, the Greens are often times a serious factor in the government make-up. The latest evidence of that occurred last weekend in Germany where, in state elections, Baden-Württemberg Green Party leader, Winfried Kretschmann, became the first ever Green Premier.

The continued marginalization of the Greens in our country from participating fully in the political discourse by small vested interests intent on maintaining the status quo is a growing blot on our democracy. Adherence to old ways of doing things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them regardless of the obvious deleterious effects seems nothing short of determinedly pathological. Our way of doing politics as it stands presently is itself becoming fringe.

There is a better way. We know it. We can show it and see it at work around us. Yet we insist on continuing along a path that can only lead to continued cynicism, apathy and disillusion.

greenly submitted by Urban Sophisticat