Now the scandal is repeating itself, except more outrageously. Once again a small "club" of television network executives has met in secret to decide one of the most crucial questions of the campaign: Which party leaders will they permit to take part?
Their decision is significant. Since the 1960s, television has become the most influential medium of political communication. And the televised leaders' debate has grown from a curious sideshow to the main media event of virtually all federal and provincial campaigns. In this election, with the polls indicating a tight race, it's safe to predict that the most watched event of the campaign will be the leaders' debates in French and English on June 14 and 15. A serious misstep in the debate could mean the difference between victory and defeat for either of the two leading candidates.
For the other party leaders, the debates are an opportunity to bring their messages to a vast audience. Simply appearing in the debate can add critical points to any party's standing in the polls.
Before the televised debate became so important, and before the number of smaller parties began to increase, no one paid much attention to how participation was decided. It was done over drinks in a hotel room, as I recall the process in 1979, the only one that I personally witnessed.
In recent campaigns, questions about this process have become more insistent: Why should the networks control what has become a standard major event of every campaign? Exactly what are the criteria for selecting participants?
No answers have been forthcoming, either from the CRTC, which regulates broadcasting in the interests of maintaining "equity in public affairs programming" or from the television networks.
In fact, the CRTC made the situation even worse several months ago when it announced that it would "no longer require that so-called 'debates' programs feature all rival parties or candidates in one or more programs." Instead, it would be satisfied if "reasonable steps are taken to ensure that their (the networks') audiences are informed on the main issues . . . through their public affairs programs generally." That is, the networks can do whatever they want short of devoting all their air time to the Flat Earth Party.
In the current campaign, ignoring the problem has produced a predictable mess. The most glaring symptom of this is the exclusion of the Green Party from the leaders' debate. For months now, opinion polls have put support for the Green Party at around 5 per cent nationally. In British Columbia, it may actually elect MPs on June 28.
The most recent Ipsos-Reid poll in The Globe and Mail put it at 7 per cent -- the only smaller party to show positive momentum at this stage, particularly among young voters. For the first time, the Green Party has announced that it will field a full slate of 308 candidates. So why is the Green Party excluded from the debate while the Bloc Québécois, running only 75 candidates and none of them outside Quebec, is included.
But neither the CRTC nor the television networks is even trying to explain it. That's because the whole secret process is indefensible in a functioning democracy.
The Green Party leader, Jim Harris, has asked other party leaders not to take part in the forthcoming debate as a protest. This is about as likely as Prime Minister Paul Martin deciding to withdraw in favour of Stephen Harper. What could be expected from party leaders at this point, however, is a commitment to take control of the leaders' debate away from the TV networks and either force the CRTC to do its job -- or create a public authority with broad representation to come up with reasonable criteria for participation. Why should current party leaders do this? Because it's in their own interest. Any one of them could be the next leader to be excluded by the networks in the next campaign.
Peter Desbarats has acted as both a media panelist and moderator of leaders' debates in federal and Ontario elections.
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