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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Set the table right for a meaningful debate Add to ...

Early next week, news executives from the major networks will gather to discuss televised election debates.

There will be much to discuss, and to change. The format in recent years has not worked for the viewers/voters for whose enlightenment, in theory, the debates are held.

Ask yourself: Were you, or your friends, satisfied with the debates last time, or the time before, or the time before that? If so, you were in a minority.

Most people panned them as shoutfests. Three or four opposition leaders ganged up on whoever was prime minister. No adequate time was allowed for an exploration of issues.

Last time, the networks made matters worse by listening to those voices (including mine) who wrongly insisted that the leader of the Green Party be included, bringing the total around the table to five.

(Columnists, unlike politicians, should admit when they are wrong, when they have changed their minds and why.)

The networks have to establish criteria about who should be invited to debate and why. It's not an easy decision, because no precise tradeoff exists among fairness to all, representativeness of voice and effectiveness.

Last year's debate showed that the addition of a fifth voice was not based on any sensible criteria, apart from Ms. May being a woman and therefore breaking into the boy's club, which isn't a criterion but an emotion. (The next party leader might be a man, and other party leaders might be female.)

With five leaders sitting around the table, in English, viewers/voters were subjected to a debate in which leaders with no seats in Parliament (Ms. May) or no candidates outside Quebec (the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe) were given equal time with the Prime Minister, or the one leader who might have replaced him (Stéphane Dion).

Ultimately, elections are about who will govern us, and there were only two leaders, realistically speaking, who were going to do that. The same will be true this time. Either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff will be prime minister. Any pretensions from another leader about becoming prime minister are ridiculous.

Somehow - and there are a variety of ways - the debates have to resume their focus toward helping viewers/voters make their choice between the two with a chance to be prime minister, while not ignoring the voices of the other parties.

Recent debates have evolved toward all parties being treated equally whatever the difference in seats, share of the popular vote, likelihood of forming a government. It wasn't always that way.

Some decades ago, networks used a formula whereby the leaders of the two largest parties would participate throughout, the leader of the NDP would be brought in for some of the debate, and the leader of the Social Credit Party for a few minutes at the end. It was a graduated formula, in other words, that tried to find a balance between giving everyone a chance to be heard, while recognizing that the most consequential debate was between the leaders with the realistic chance of forming a government and becoming prime minister.

There are other options in a tiered television universe.

Some network executives would love to push the debates off the main channels to specialty services that they own. That way, the networks could preserve their valuable advertising time for U.S. imports in prime time.

True, minority governments are producing elections every year to 18 months, instead of every four years. But giving up two hours of prime time is hardly an insuperable burden for networks possessing a publicly awarded broadcasting licence.

So can that idea, but think of using the specialty channels to find the balance between fairness to all parties and helping viewers/voters focus on who might actually become prime minister.

Set the following criteria. Leaders whose parties get at least 15 per cent of the popular vote and/or whose parties have 50 seats (roughly 15 per cent) in the House of Commons can participate in the nationally televised debate in English in the main network.

Then, let there be one-hour interviews, or something of this sort, with the leaders of the other parties on prime-time programs on the specialty channels.

The same criteria could be used in French. Leaders whose parties commanded 15 per cent of the vote (in Quebec) can participate in debates on the main channels; interviews would be reserved for the others.

Of course, some people who support marginal parties will scream, claiming equality, equality, equality. But what's fair about allowing a party with no seats, or 10 per cent of the popular vote, to receive the same exposure to viewers/voters as parties with more than 100 seats, or 150 seats, and almost 40 per cent of the vote?

The networks control the format. The ones they have tried in recent elections haven't worked. It's time to try something trimmed down that lets the major parties with demonstrated significant support get a fairer shot at being heard.

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