Amid news coverage of Conservative candidates cynically skipping election debates, an insidious and perhaps much more disconcerting development has gone mostly unnoticed: minor-party and independent candidates intentionally excluded from debates.
In the riding of Vancouver Quadra, for example, candidates representing smaller political parties and independents were not invited to participate in the majority of debates. When these candidates—who constitute almost half of the people running for office in Vancouver Quadra—objected to their omission, such protests usually went ignored by debate organizers.
This unfortunate scenario transpired in numerous federal election ridings across Canada.
It is plausible that the concept of deliberately excluding some candidates from riding debates was inspired by the recent series of nationally televised leaders' debates, many of which featured only the three largest political parties. In previous years, the qualification threshold for TV debates was for parties to have a seat in Parliament—but in 2015 that was inexplicably deemed insufficient, allowing organizers to exclude parties such as the Greens and Bloc Québécois from many of the televised debates.
As if inspired by this newly malleable national threshold, the requirement for participating in local riding debates was tightened in many cases. In previous federal elections, simply running for office was enough to virtually guarantee inclusion at all-candidates’ forums. But this year, many neighbourhood debate organizers elevated the requirement to membership in a party that holds at least one seat in Parliament.
This is a curated democracy that debate organizers are attempting to impose upon us, in which selective candidates have been sifted out of contention. It is dire enough that Canada's antiquated voting system inherently restricts the plurality and diversity of those able to be elected to Parliament—but now even the act of running in an election is to be further tethered?
What possible benefit is there to voters when debate hosts decide to act as gatekeepers and impose arbitrary barriers against candidate participation? Some of the candidates and their ideas may be eccentric, but if they refrain from spreading hatred or making offensive statements, why exclude them?
Are policies such as reducing copyright terms, legalizing marijuana, or raising the personal income tax exemption so egregious that it is worth curtailing our democratic options in order to silence such ideas?
Independent and small-party candidates typically run modest campaigns buoyed only with meagre funding, which prevents them from purchasing advertising. Neighbourhood hustings remain one of the few avenues they have to share their ideas about how our society should be governed. If local debates become increasingly exclusive, prospective candidates outside of the large parties may decide that participating in our democracy just isn't worth the time and effort.
That is problematic. If we only hear from the four largest parties at debates, it would mean that most of the participating candidates would be repeating their party’s carefully scripted messaging, leaving little room for spontaneity and unconstrained personal opinions. It would also result in debates in which all of the participants—including the Greens—would be vetted by their respective party’s "green-light process," meant to keep "undesirable" people from representing the big party labels. This would result in bland, sanitized forums in which most of the candidates would be extremely cautious about what they say, so as to avoid punishment or political reprisals.
Another result of candidate exclusion is that diverse voices are less likely to be included, which limits the variety of policy proposals. Divergent and innovative views not shared by the four largest parties could become scarce within our democratic conversations. When we consider that the policy of ending marijuana prohibition—now promoted by three of Canada’s four largest political parties—was once considered taboo and only promoted by fringe parties, we can see the value of including smaller parties and independents in our political discourse. These candidates are willing to advocate for evidence-based policies that our society may currently find unpalatable—but which may become mainstream ideas and be adopted by the larger parties in future years.
I can sympathize with the (often elderly) volunteers organizing these debates, especially if they see party names such as "Pirate" and "Marijuana" and assume the worst. Such volunteers might wonder if these are genuine candidates who will add value to the debate, or instead if they will be disruptive and attempt to make a mockery of the event.
Such fears, however, are no excuse to filter our democratic choices. If debate organizers are afraid of a rambunctious forum with multiple voices, why are they organizing such hustings? If voters are to make a truly informed choice, it is imperative that all candidates be heard. That has always been our democratic convention. Why change it now?
Although independents and minor-party candidates are unlikely to win, perhaps the most persuasive argument against creating barriers for local debate participation is the 1989 by-election result in Beaver River, Alberta. Deborah Grey ran under the Reform Party banner in this former riding, at a time when Reform was a fledging entity with no seats in Parliament. She won. This subsequently enabled Reform Party leader Preston Manning to participate in the 1993 election's televised leaders' debates, which helped Reform win 52 seats—just two short of the official opposition Bloc Québécois. Reform later rebranded and was involved in the merger of right-wing parties that created the present-day Conservatives. Oh, and some young upstart named Stephen Harper served as a legislative assistant to Grey.
While most Georgia Straight readers were not supporters of the Reform Party or its ideological successors, Grey's federal by-election win illustrates the importance of giving access to all candidates at riding debates. Had she been barred from participating at hustings in Beaver River, Canadian political history could have unfolded in a remarkably different manner.
The danger is that if Canada’s next prodigious politician—perhaps destined to inspire the next generation of voters and reshape our country dramatically for the better—is precluded from even joining local riding debates, they might find it virtually impossible to get elected. Is that a risk we can tolerate?