An Opponent of the Green Party Speaks: Include Elizabeth May in Canada’s Leader’s Debates
March 31, 2011 by Paul McKeever
My readers will know that I am currently leader of the Freedom Party of Ontario. As such, I disagree with almost everything Canada’s Green Party – and its leader, Elizabeth May – have to say about how Canada should be governed. I would never vote for a Green candidate, and I honestly believe that, were the Greens ever to form the government of this country, only bad could come of it.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let me get to my point: it is morally wrong, anti-democratic, and a corruption of Canada’s electoral process, for it to be legal for a “Consortium” of privately-owned networks having a state-granted television oligopoly, to exclude Ms May from the coming leader’s debates. And I say that as the person who, arguably, is Canada’s most absolute and outspoken defender of property rights (go ahead, try to prove me wrong…you’ll lose).
Any number of excuses have been offered up for excluding everyone except the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and BQ from federal debates (or for excluding everyone except Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, or NDP in Ontario provincial elections). You’ve heard them all before, and none of the excuses bears a whiff of sincerity.
There’s the “your party doesn’t have a seat” excuse, which is a lie, because the Greens had a seat going into the 2008 election, yet May was nonetheless initially told she would be excluded from that year’s leader’s debate. More to the point: no party has a seat during an election because a legislature must be dissolved – all legislators must lose their seats – before an election can even be called.
There’s the “your party is too low in the polls” excuse. Those making the excuse never specify what would would constitute having a sufficiently high ranking in the polls. More to the point: as the fall of the PCs in 1993 – among numerous other incidents in the history of elections – shows, past performance is not a reliable indicator of future success. In 1993, the PCs lost all but two of their 151 seats. And it would be remiss of me not to point out that the polls themselves do not allow participants to indicate a preference for most duly registered political parties (just try to say that you prefer Freedom Party of Ontario in a provincial poll: you’re opinion, if it is included at all, will show up under “other”, because “Freedom Party of Ontario” is not one of the multiple choice responses pollsters will agree to include on any political poll).
There’s the “we only have so much time for the debate and too many people will leave us with too little time to debate the issues meaningfully” excuse. Anybody who has watched what they call a “leader’s debate” in recent decades knows this is utter malarky. Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell once stated that elections are no time to discuss serious issues. And, consistent with her sentiment, leader’s debates are notoriously devoid of meaningful debate. In fact, to call any in which more than 2 people are involved a “debate” is to abuse the term. As any adult who is politically engaged should know, leader’s debates don’t involve debating. Rather, they are efforts, by the participants, to create “gotcha” moments. As the English leader’s debate of 2008 (in which Ms May was involved ) demonstrated, it does not matter whether there are 4 or 5 party leaders involved in such an effort. In any event, most commonly, none of the participants score a “gotcha”, none of them say anything unambiguous, and all of them end up getting judged upon such ridiculously irrelevant things as how much they “looked” like Prime Ministerial material. Good grief.
At the end of the day the most powerful effect – the intended effect – of a televised leader’s debate is this (and all of the Consortium members know it): to vet the participants as being worthy of votes. More precisely: to condemn non-participants as being unworthy of votes. The purpose of the leader’s debate is not really to tell you which of the participants to vote for. The central and most important purpose is to tell the viewer not to vote for any party that is not included in the debate. That’s it. Look no further. Its primary effect is not informational, but psychological.
You have all been to an exclusive get-together: a party, a Toronto speech by Al Gore, etc.. You all know that the biggest and most influential effect of such a get together is not to enjoy such an event (or, in the case of Gore, to learn anything from it); the largest effect is not even to create an impression that those who are included are winners. The most influential effect is to establish that those who are excluded are losers. In the election of 2011, the exclusion of Elizabeth May is the most important electoral purpose of the leader’s debate: the Consortium wants you to see that it has excluded her from something extremely important: electoral legitimacy. They want you to see that the Consortium has denied her its seal of approval. To the Consortium, ensuring that you do not vote Green is much more important than influencing which of the included parties you do vote for.
The reason: it really doesn’t matter to the Consortium which of the leader’s debate participants you vote for because the companies making up the Consortium could live with any of them. Harper has been licking their boots since he lost the election of 2004. He’s their man, and you just know that Ignatieff would easily assume the same boot-licking position were he elected. In contrast, the corporations that comprise the Consortium could not live with a Prime Minister Elizabeth May, or even with a significant number of Green MPs. May and the Greens are not loyal to, and probably would never be loyal to, the corporations that form the Consortium. The Greens put their principles (zany as I believe those principles to be) first, and quite probably would not sell-out those principles to the corporate interests represented by the Consortium. The Greens quite probably would change who wins and who loses under the laws of this country. And, for that reason, the corporations comprising the Consortium are hell bent on making sure you believe that Elizabeth May and the Greens are not worthy of your vote (even though almost a million Canadians voted Green in 2008); hell bent on making sure you believe that a vote for a Green MP is a “wasted” vote (even though all of the votes cast for losing Conservative, Liberal, NDP, and BQ candidates in 2008 were, in the exact same sense, “wasted” votes); hell bent on ensuring that they do not lose their goodies.
The bottom line is this. The corporations comprising the Consortium are being allowed to abuse their government-granted privileges, and the public’s trust, in order to secure their own unearned, anti-competitive privileges. You could not start a television station – for example, one that promotes the Greens – if your life depended upon it. The law prohibits you from doing so, and permits CTV and CBC (and other Consortium members) to operate without any fear that you will start up a competitive television network: such competition is outlawed. You need a licence from the CRTC and – guess what? – the Liberals and Conservatives write the laws about who gets a licence and how…and they have – for the CRTC’s entire history – ensured that folks like you never are permitted to broadcast your own signal on the Canadian airwaves. It’s a closed shop. The fix is in. There’s nothing “free market” about Canada’s television market; there’s no free flow of political ideas. They tell you who to vote for, and – having earned your trust with nightly news broadcasts – they abuse that trust at election time to get you to vote as they tell you you should.
My message to you is this: a corporation that is protected, by government, from competition – a corporation that could not broadcast its message legally without a licence issued by the government of Canada – ought not to be permitted by law to use its ill-gotten preferential status to implicitly condemn parties – like the Greens – that it fears would not play ball were they to form the government. The people of Canada have given those media corporations licences to broadcast without fearing competition from other companies that would like to start up a television station/network. So long as that unjust protectionism is in place, no such broadcaster should have the freedom to black-ball political parties such as the Greens.
Canada – and each of its provinces – must adopt laws that defeat such obvious partisanship with respect to leader’s debates. If we must exclude the Rhino Party – because it doesn’t truly seek to be elected – then fine: establish a rational criterion whereby inclusion in a leader’s debate requires that a included party leader lead a party that is truly seeking to have its members elected. If we must exclude leaders who – having too few candidates – could not become the Prime Minister/Premier, fair enough, but let us not be afraid to exclude Gilles Duceppe (or one of his successors) from leaders debates if we do adopt such a rule: his Bloc Quebecois party does not have enough candidates for him ever to rationally expect to become the Prime Minister of Canada. However, so long as you are excluded from starting your own television station – so long as running one is, in effect, a government-granted privilege – we must adopt laws to take away from those having a broadcast licence the discretion to pick-and-choose who will be excluded from leaders debates. The absence of such a law makes a mockery of our elections, and of democracy itself.
NOTE: Freedom Party is not nominating any candidates in the 2011 federal election.