Whether or not one agrees with the broadcast consortium's decisions to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the leaders debates and to rule out a one-on-one between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, the way in which those decisions were made highlight the fact that we do not have a coherent system to oversee an essential component of our federal elections.
Canadian election debates, despite being held since 1968, are flawed in virtually all aspects - from planning, to format, to distribution, to ad hoc decisions on participants.
First, our debates are not transparent. The way they are negotiated prioritizes the interest of the parties above those of the voters. These closed-door negotiations encompasses all aspects of the debate, including whether to have a debate at all - in effect, giving a veto to any one of the political parties. The threat of this veto could be what is keeping Ms. May out of this year's debates.
Second, this flawed negotiation process, unsurprisingly, creates a flawed debate format. J. Jeffery Auer called the infamous 1960 U.S. election debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon "a double public press conference for simultaneous interviewing." This, of course, is the ideal outcome for a politician, and precisely what you get when they make the rules.
Third, the sole medium used to disseminate the debates - television - is not in and of itself a sufficient way of stimulating public engagement. If the desired goal of the debate is public participation, it's retrograde to limit debates to a single live viewing on one medium. In addition to allowing many more people to both watch and participate in the debates, using a broader range of online tools would also serve to democratize the commentary process - which research shows is often more influential than the debate itself.
Fourth, the considerable costs of holding the debates are born solely by the broadcasters and their shareholders. The 1997 debates cost $275,000 to produce, plus more than $3-million in lost advertising. If we consider debates to be an important part of the electoral system, it's strange they are the only aspect not covered by electoral spending laws or by the public financing system.
Fifth, why do we have only two leaders debates? In a parliamentary system, we are also electing MPs and, ultimately, a cabinet, not just a prime minister. Why not hold issue-based critics debates throughout the election in addition to multiple leaders debates on specific topics such as health care, foreign affairs and the environment?
Finally, language has been a thorny issue throughout the history of our election debates. While the first debate in 1968 was simultaneously translated, we have since moved to having separate French and English debates. The result is that the French version invariably becomes the "Quebec debate." There's absolutely no reason why debates can't be simultaneously translated, allowing for policy issues to be spread over the two debates. If aspiring prime ministers choose not to speak in both official languages, that's their headache.
Since the 2008 election, we have worked as private individuals on a project to study our debate system and to look internationally for alternative models. It's now quite clear that the debates must be taken over by an independent commission.
The core principles of such a commission should be independence and transparency. The commission would thus operate as an independent charitable civic institution, rather than either a part of Elections Canada or a new government agency. It would be government by a cross-partisan board of prominent Canadians.
Planning should occur between elections, with the commission transparently negotiating the rules using the goal of a substantive policy debate as the primary interest. The format should draw on international best practices, include a diverse range of debate styles and participant groupings, be held throughout the campaign on various issues, and leverage the latest technology for both broadcasting and engagement.
Money to fund the debates should be raised privately through charitable contributions, taking the burden of the cost away from the TV networks.
By demonstrating how debates can be more transparent in their organization and rule-making, more engaging in terms of their format and staging, and far more technologically savvy, an independent commission could have a far-reaching impact on the quality of public policy debate in Canada.
If reforms are left until after the next election, we will undoubtedly come up against the same reluctance to change the system that we've witnessed over the past two years. The time to reform the debates is now, while we have national attention on what is a clearly flawed process.
Rudyard Griffiths is the co-organizer of the Munk Debates and co-host of SqueezePlay on BNN. Taylor Owen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and research director for the Munk Debates.
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