Every four years, when the U.S. presidential debates dominate the media, Canadians can’t help but come down with a severe case of political envy. As money-drenched, advertising-saturated and toxically partisan as U.S. politics have become, the final debates of the 18-month-plus election cycle are irresistible viewing.
The debates’ allure is more than just political theatre. They create those rare moments when the political carnival that is U.S. politics comes to a shuddering stop. Shorn of their focus-group-tested cardigans, carefully crafted stump speeches and floating teleprompters, the two candidates are forced to spar with each other, a sword’s length apart, prodded by savvy moderators. Mass media meets mass democracy and the formula works: The candidates’ foibles and strengths are revealed, their ideas are pressure-tested and undecided voters decide.
The success of the U.S. presidential debates – their varying formats, different subject areas and frequency – isn’t happenstance. For going on a generation, Americans have wisely relied on arm’s-length groups to organize their presidential debates. First the League of Woman Voters, and now the Commission on Presidential Debates has determined the participants, venues, format and number of events. The campaigns and the media have a say, but the process is driven by a third-party group which, in the case of the commission, is ostensibly independent.
In Canada, it could not be more different. There is no third-party organization to co-ordinate debates. Instead, all federal election debates are organized by a “broadcast consortium” that negotiates the debate terms with the very political parties that regulate their business through the CRTC, the Broadcasting Act and host of other policy levers. Newspapers, new media and the public have no say in a process that is so opaque it makes Mitt Romney with his controversial tax returns and Swiss bank accounts look like a paragon of public accountability.
As lamentable as Canada’s undemocratic approach is, what really shames us is the sorry sop that ends up on our living-room televisions.
Imagine a runoff debate in the campaign’s final week between the top two party leaders as measured in the polls? Imagine questions put by actual citizens, as will be the case in Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday night? Imagine transparent rules that determine who can take part in the debates? Imagine simultaneous French-English debates?
No, our fate, carefully scripted by the broadcasters and parties, is two utterly conventional debates. One in French completely dedicated to Quebec issues. Each featuring a gaggle of leaders reciting formulaic talking points and scripted attack lines. Each uninspiring, unexciting, unedifying – everything the front-running party leaders (and future CRTC masters) want out of a low-risk election debate.
Robo calls aside, there is much that we can be proud of about our federal election system. We have wisely eschewed the long-standing American practice of politicizing our bureaucracy. Public financing of our elections, from the national campaigns to individual ridings, is the law. The banning of corporate and union donations ensures an equity of political influence that ennobles our democracy. And, while still controversial, strict limits on third-party advertising prevents our elections from being hijacked by single-issue groups and moneyed interests.
The sensible way we run our democracy ensures that we will remain one as compared to an America that seems set on backsliding into the Gilded Age.
Yet, before we condemn the sorry state of U.S. democracy outright, let’s acknowledge what they do best, including hosting terrific presidential debates.
Thankfully, here in Canada, the call for an independent debates commission is more than a rallying cry of academics. In political parties, among people who care about more and better public policy discussion, pressure is growing for a full-fledged reform of our debates.
For anyone who thinks otherwise watch Tuesday’s presidential contest. Then ask yourself why Canadians should tolerate anything but a series of outstanding federal election debates, independently organized in the public and opposed to the parties’ interests, the next time we head to the polls.
Rudyard Griffiths is executive director and moderator of the semi-annual Munk Debates.