The most recent debate around election debates is an opportunity for Canadians to demand more of their democracy. The remedies for incivility must be structural - chief among them a new approach to moderating the debates, and a chance for Canadians to see the choice for prime minister put into sharper relief.
The Broadcast Consortium has barred Elizabeth May, the Green Party Leader, from the debates, as it did initially in 2008. It should reconsider and let her take part. Despite her lack of MPs, she leads a party running a national slate (unlike the Bloc Québécois), with rising support in the polls and in consecutive elections.
Ideally, debates are an opportunity for voters to discern their political options. But since 1993, when the ranks of the participants swelled from three, the quality of debate, and the ability of voters to gain any useful information, have plummeted. The leaders' debates have become a cacophonous mess; sharp lines between leaders and parties are blurred amid the bickering.
That will not change with the inclusion, or the exclusion, of Ms. May, as her performance last time showed. The civility Canadians expect of each other, and want in their politics, is missing in the forum to which many Canadians look in order to inform their votes.
But it can be brought back. From the speeches of Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen over the King-Byng affair to the Mulroney-Turner-Broadbent faceoffs of 1984 and 1988, political debates can shape and sharpen choices without descending into disarray. What they require is strenuous moderation, artful enough to allow each person to have his or her say, but strong enough to deter, and punish, the kind of cross-talk that pollutes the experience for everyone. The identification of such a person would go a long way toward restoring some share of respect for our politicians, who are, like it or not, part of the lifeblood of our democracy.
We need a further reform. Canadians are not just electing their MP. They are electing, though indirectly, a government. And that requires a separate pair of debates (in English and French) involving only those leaders with a realistic chance of forming a government. In this campaign, those leaders are Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff. Both have expressed a desire for such a one-on-one debate, and Rudyard Griffiths, director of the non-partisan The Munk Debates, has said that outstanding organization would host a head-to-head debate. They should be given an opportunity.
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