Rob Mason: Why should we include Elizabeth May in the leaders’ debates?

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      Confronting the prime minister of Canada on prime time is a rare and coveted privilege in Canadian politics. As the leader of a party with two seats in the House of Commons and substantial national support, Elizabeth May believes that she deserves a seat at the table.

      Debate organizers have the profoundly dangerous power to shut out political perspectives. In the absence of a law regulating this power, we have struggled to find a principled framework for determining who gets to debate. We have looked for defensible criteria that can balance the need to present the most relevant information with the need to avoid unnecessary restrictions on democratic choice. To sum up decades of inconsistency, we’re still looking.

      When I organized a debate for the 2013 federal by-election, I was committed to the principle of broad democratic participation, and optimistic that I could host a debate that would meaningfully include all of the registered candidates. The result was utter chaos, with two of the invited candidates frequently disrupting the debate with belligerent behaviour, to the point that one of these would-be parliamentarians was ultimately arrested.

      Inclusion of all federal party leaders in a single debate is similarly unworkable. A mere 250 signatures are required to form a federal political party. As a result, fringe parties can’t be given a completely equal voice without diminishing vital, mainstream discourse. While a debate between the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada and the Communist Party of Canada would no doubt be entertaining, it would distract from the real challenges of the 21st century. In other words, if the leaders’ debate is to be valuable to voters, a line needs to be drawn somewhere.

      The fundamental question is where to draw that line. In the past, broadcasters have relied on various combinations of popular support, as measured by national polls or by a party’s seat count in Parliament. These are the only sensible criteria for evaluating the strength of a political party, but without specific and transparent thresholds, Canadians are forced to blindly trust in the judgement of corporate media moguls.

      May has gathered over 60,000 signatures in an attempt to shame the other major parties into taking a public stance on her inclusion in the debates. Missing from this campaign is a coherent articulation of the specific threshold for inclusion that May believes she has reached. If it is the fact that the Green party has two seats in Parliament, she should say so and be accountable for that claim if her party drops below that level. Similarly, if she deserves to be included because of her party’s polling numbers, she should explain the magic number she thinks she’s reached. In May’s defence, no other major party leader has offered such an articulation. But then, they are not the ones pressing the issue.

      On Wednesday (April 8), Justin Trudeau offered two reasons for why May should be included in the leaders’ debate: that he hopes for a discussion of environmental issues, and that May, as a woman, will add diversity to the event. These are admirable goals, but they are not principled criteria. In 1997, the Progressive Conservatives had the same number of seats as the Green party does today. It would have been equally ridiculous to use Jean Charest’s gender and environmental views as a litmus test for his inclusion in the leaders’ debate.

      Instead of self-serving sound bites, our politicians should be proposing principled criteria for their inclusion in the debates that will be fair and predictable not only in this election, but in all future elections. If our leaders are unable or unwilling to lead, it will be left to broadcasters to choose their own standards. The leaders’ debate has become too vital an institution in Canadian elections to leave unregulated. If broadcasters are unwilling to set their own transparent and consistent criteria, Parliament may need to step in. That would surely be a debate worth watching.

      Rob Mason is a UBC law student and the founder of the St. Michael’s College Political Debate Club, which hosted a federal all-candidates debate in Toronto Centre in 2013. He had sought the NDP nomination in Vancouver Granville, but is no longer a candidate.



      ursa minor

      Apr 10, 2015 at 1:53pm

      It doesn't matter who the party leader is: the more leaders that are included, the closer the leaders debate comes to "utter chaos". If the debate can't be lengthened or use a transparent format, voters will just be left with the same cacophony of risk-averse talking points, and talking head spin-doctors telling them who "won". Broadcast networks can't tell us how to watch our favorite shows or sports anymore, why do we let them shepherd us into voting for whom they deem acceptable through their stage-managed filter of a 'debate'?

      Steve Abbott

      Apr 10, 2015 at 9:14pm

      "But then, they are not the ones pressing the issue."
      The implication of this statement is that "not pressing the issue" is an excuse for being reticent. Did the author pause to think about what he was writing? Is this really a position that the author hopes will pass unnoticed as balanced discussion? The ones who have never been excluded, whether as individuals or as parties, are excused for their reticence because they are not interested in change? Does conflict of interest have any bearing on the matter at all? The included need have no interest in the excluded? The "haves" are excused for having no interest in the concerns of the "have nots"? This is a basis for governance worthy of the (actually fictitious) phrase used to illustrate the carelessness of the French aristocracy in the latter half of the 18th century. "They have no bread? Let them eat cake."

      Occupy Awareness

      Apr 10, 2015 at 9:29pm

      If Elizabeth May is so concerned about serving democracy, why is he not advocating for the other two parties that have seats in the house? The Bloc Québécois & Forces et Démocratie both have 2 seats in the HOC, just like the Greens do. Trudeau is using the excuse that May should be included because she is a woman and knows something about the environment. JT should look into her environmental policies a little deeper and why did he not commit to a leader's debate on women's issues. I smell political opportunism:

      Justin Trudeau won’t commit to leaders’ debate on women’s issues. Tom Mulcair and Elizabeth May say yes to Up for Debate campaign:

      What's wrong with Elizabeth May's Environmental policy:

      No Kidding

      Apr 11, 2015 at 9:00am

      @Occupy Awareness:

      "I smell political opportunism:"

      Political opportunism during an election campaign??? Impossible. That would never happen!


      Apr 12, 2015 at 7:01am

      2 seats
      10% in the polls

      Research before judgement

      Apr 13, 2015 at 8:27am

      "Missing from this campaign is a coherent articulation of the specific threshold for inclusion" & "The fundamental question is where to draw that line"

      Where to draw the line is an interesting and important question, but it can't be the fundamental question until we know the answers to these questions: Who draws the line? Who can move the line? Where is the line now?

      Elizabeth May wrote about this same issue in previous election cycles in her book, Losing Confidence, with plenty of coherent articulation. To claim she has not fully and constructively addressed the issue is misrepresentative and for me undermines the author's entire piece.

      If Rob Mason formed and promoted this position based only on the campaigning presented to him through mainstream media, and his experience trying to run a debate with no threshold or comportment criteria, then he has demonstrated the point that the filters we currently experience not only do us a disservice but are dangerous.

      @Research before judgement

      Apr 14, 2015 at 12:24pm

      Could you provide a quote from May? Just saying that she's clearly articulated a threshold means nothing unless you can cite it.


      Apr 16, 2015 at 8:25am

      Interesting to see the NDP putting a new spin on the tired old tropes they typically employ to marginalize, silence or belittle the Greens and Green voters. Putting aside the reek of Rob Mason's partisanship for a moment — any real progressive with the ability to step back from the orange kool-aid for a moment will appreciate that including the Greens makes for a better NDP; after all it was May's stance on Bill C-51 that prompted the NDP to follow a month later, and Green leadership on pipeline that forced the NDP take a position on pipelines.