On Inclusion in Televised Leaders' Debates

September 11, 2008 by  

Yesterday, the “consortium” of government-owned or government-licenced television companies that host one televised debate per election among the leaders of some political parties reversed a decision to exclude Green Party leader Elizabeth May from the debate. Explaining that the leaders of the Conservative and New Democratic parties had threatened not to attend were Ms. May to be invited to the debates, they had announced earlier this week a list of invitees that included only the leaders of parties that won seats in the Canadian Parliament back in 2006. May played the “sexism” card – because the consortium decision makers and the other parties leaders are all male. Within hours, the Conservative and NDP parties – clearly not wanting unjustly to be smeared as sexists – dropped their opposition to May’s inclusion. That deprived the consortium of its excuse du jour for excluding other parties. As a result, it announced that – due to the change of the two parties’ minds – they were happy to have her join the stage (i.e., they effectively pretended that they would have had her on the stage all-along had it not been for the bad bad mean old Conservative and NDP parties).

Before that decision was made, Mclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne wrote it was time for Canadians to “raise hell”, and for an independent body to take over the decision-making role for who gets included in such election debates hereafter. Comments to the blogs were full of the usual suggestions about what should be the “fair” criteria for including a party’s leader in such debates. Rather than set criteria, I had the following to say:

Arguments about who should be included in “the leaders’ debate” are usually 99% (Harry G. Frankfurt) bullshit, which makes even this well-meaning discussion difficult to take seriously.

1. They are not debates. Debates require arguments and counter-arguments, and – arguably – involve only two people. They involve a debating question. And, they usually involve the use of material facts. What we get, instead, is usually a boring 1 hour effort in which everyone tries to deliver an ad hominem gotcha for the 11 PM news, a la the oh-so-tired “You had an option, sir” (apparently, the best clip Canadian political history has to offer…pathetic). Worse: almost all opinion-makers present these jokes as though they are an important consideration for reasoned voting.

2. The actual purpose of the “debates” is to tell the voting public who is to be considered “legit”. The message sent by the networks is: “These are the leaders of the only parties you should vote for. The rest are all fringe parties, with nutty ideas, and it would be dangerous or stupid to vote for them. Look no further than the parties led by these 4 clowns”. In other words, the only reason for appearing on the stage is to communicate to the public that the establishment has vetted you. Elizabeth May (or, in provincial elections, people like myself, Frank deJong etc.) are excluded precisely to prevent the emergence of parties who propose actual changes. Shorter still: the function of the televised debates is to maintain the status quo. So for people to argue about how to set a bar for inclusion misses the entire point: the only real prequisite is that your party will change nothing that matters to big business, big unions, and other big organizations who don’t want their government hand-out, protection, exclusive contract, etc. put at risk.

3. Arguments about who should be included are really arguments about who should be excluded. If you want to have a better grasp on the issue, consider the policies of the parties that are excluded. It is all you really need to know.

4. Consider that, during an election, the idea of how many seats a party has is pointless: nobody has any seats – the legislature/Parliament has been dissolved, and the Conservatives currently have no more seats than do the Communist Party of Canada.

5. Arguments about inclusion usually propose considerations about past performance, rather than about ideas. If the purpose of a debate is to debate ideas so that voters can decide for themselves with which party’s ideas they agree, how many people voted for the ideas that purportedly got the parties elected 3 or 4 years ago is irrelevant: hopefully, they are not the same ideas that are being debated today.

Journalists who think that the networks deserve to have their asses whooped over exclusion of political party leaders should take a tip from their own practices. When a party comes up with a good idea, but the party proposing it is someone they do not want to legitimize by explicitly mentioning it, they do one of two things: pretend the party doesn’t exist and write nothing, or say that “some are saying” the thing that the journalist finds to be a good idea. To whack the networks: give the “leaders debate” the silent treatment. Don’t write about it. Don’t legitimize it. Don’t help the effort to pretend that it is a debate of ideas. Don’t make voters believe that it actually matters a pinch of racoon-poop which leader “looked statesman-like”. Just pretend it didn’t happen, until leaders debates cease to be vetting processes, and start to be what they purport to be: a service for voters.

End quote.

Some will now hail the decision to include Elizabeth May as a fixing of the problem; as the undoing of a wrong. It is not. The Greens got lucky this time, that’s all. Fundamentally, the power to exclude and maintain the status quo remains.

In fact, already, the National Post’s Editorial Board is suggesting that the Greens be excluded from the next televised debate – that they “bar the door the next time around” – “In the event that Ms. May’s party slips below the legislated minimum funding threshold in the Oct. 14 election…”. The threshold in question is one that requires a party to register (so that it can be subjected to limitations on voluntary contributions, and subjected to election spending limits) and to get at least 2% of the vote (so that they can obtain a $1.75 per vote per year welfare cheque until the next election, courtesy of the non-consenting taxpayer).

In other words, the National Post’s position is: if you qualify for welfare, you belong in the leaders debate. In a free country, the opposite should be true.

Elizabeth May on being excluded.

Elizabeth May on the reversal of the decision to exclude her.


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