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.