Canada's major broadcasters must ask themselves one simple question about election debates: Do we, the networks, with our public licences, serve the citizenry or the political parties? They came up with the right answer. Good for them.
If networks exist at election time to serve the political parties, whose leaders are the stars of televised debates, then the networks must do as the parties say. The parties, and not the networks, will determine the format, frequency, rules and moderator(s).
If, however, the networks exist at election time to serve the citizenry, then they will decide the rules of the game, the frequency of debates and other details, after reasonable consultation with the parties. If the parties wish to participate, fine; if one or more parties choose not to participate, fine, the decision will be on their head.
The networks' obligation, as holders of licences, is to provide opportunities for the public to be informed of the issues and personalities at play in the election. A debate, or more than one debate, provides that opportunity for the citizenry. If the parties don't want to avail themselves of the opportunity, that is their business.
The Harper Conservatives said they will not participate in any debate(s) organized by the consortium of the three major networks in English or by Radio-Canada in French, despite the huge audiences that these debates have enjoyed in past election campaigns. Let the networks cover or even broadcast the debates organized by others, the Tories said.
Instead, the Conservatives have agreed to participate in one debate organized by Maclean's magazine, one by The Globe and Mail in English, one by the privately owned TVA in French and another by the Toronto-based Munk Debates. They have suggested that they might agree to more debates depending on who organizes them. This new approach is supposed to democratize, or shake up, the traditional debate format, according to the Conservatives.
The Conservatives can be arguably credited with improvements in certain areas of Canadian life, but wishing to open up democracy and encourage more debate most certainly would not be among them. A more closed-shop government has never existed in Canada, nor has one more hostile to the media or public dissent from the government's line of argument. The correct reaction must be complete incredulity to the Harper Conservatives' claim that they are for more democracy and a more informed public discourse.
That they hate CBC/Radio-Canada with a deep passion is well documented. Refusing to participate in anything organized by CBC/Radio-Canada would be consistent with the government's well-known attitude. But there is likely more to this refusal, including a kind of swagger that we are the government and we can throw our weight around, even in election campaigns. This government tried to change election laws unilaterally, in defiance of a public outcry and objections from Elections Canada.
To its great credit, the network consortium understood to whom it owes obligations. It will, after all, hold debates in English and French with the NDP, Liberals, Greens and Bloc Québécois having agreed to participate. If the Conservatives continue to say no, fine. There will still be an interesting and important debate dominated by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
This debate would be the real mano-a-mano thing and attract a large audience. It would be of special interest to voters who have decided that they will never vote Conservative – a majority of the population – but are not certain which party offers the best alternative.
This jockeying around debates underscores why we should step back from pre-election shuffling and negotiating in public by the parties and media. This sort of jostling takes place in the run-up to elections because parties try to squeeze tactical advantages from this or that format and debate.
As in the United States, it would be much better if the organization of debates were placed in the hands of a third party. It could be a group associated with Elections Canada, or a trio of provincial election officials, or an institutionalized collection of university presidents, or some other arm's-length group there to defend the public interest. The arm's-length group would establish the threshold for participation, the venue, timing and format, and pick the moderator(s).
Televised debates organized by the networks have proved their worth in terms of attracting very large audiences. Canadians will be well served by the networks' correct decision.