Election debates are the best chance voters have of seeing what a party and its leader are all about before casting their ballot. At the federal level during an election there is often two debates between the leaders of the federal parties, usually one in both of the official languages of this country. No other event during the campaign has the chance to inform voters to the same level on a party’s intentions, with the possible exception of an election platform. However even a platform, a brief but detailed accounted of where parties stand, does not reach voters as accessibly as a nationally televised debate.
Additionally, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May pointed out in the 2008 election debate (see below), the Harper government was slow to produce an election platform. They would end up only doing so in the dying days of the campaign, well after early polls had accepted ballots. Platforms have only become common place in the last two decades, arguably coming into fashion after the creation of the Liberal Red Book during the 1993 election that laid out a costed governance plan if the party was elected. Platforms are custom but not mandatory. In the Canadian political system there is no requirement for a party to actually outline in writing or otherwise what it plans to do in power.
The same is true of leaders debates and debates in general at the riding level. Debates are not a requirement of a campaign in our system though candidates usually attend them if they are held because they do not want to be seen as avoiding the electorate. However debates are not run by Elections Canada or regulated by anyone. There is no legal requirement to have them, for candidates to attend and explain in person to the people what they intend to do in office, and there are no rules governing the manner in which they play out if they do happen and if candidates do attend.
The 2008 Debate as a Call for Reform
These issues were brought into the light during the 2008 federal election. Television stations, not the federal Government or Elections Canada, came together to hold a televised debate featuring the federal leaders. It was up to the TV stations when the debates would happen, how many would be held, what the topics would be, what the format would be and perhaps most importantly, who would be invited to partake. Elizabeth May, leader of a party which had never elected one if its members to the House of Commons, wanted in on the debate and was welcomed by the Liberal leader but her participation was opposed by the Prime Minister and Jack Layton of the NDP. Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois suggested “the rules are the rules are the rules” and that no seat in the House meant no seat at the debate table.
However there are no rules governing debates in Canada as I said previously. At one point, Harper was rumoured to have threatened to not attend at all which put the TV stations against the wall and decide May would not participate. Facing voter backlash, Harper and Layton backed down and said they would participate in a debate with May present. That debate can be found below.
The Prime Minister asked for the section on the economy to be longer and as the Prime Minister was granted this request by the broadcast consortium running the debate. According to May, he also ignored debate rules and brought pages of notes to his seat despite the rules of the debate stipulating he and the others could not.
What the debate did best was select a competent moderator in Steve Paiken of TVO and the physical format of the debate, having the leaders sitting around a table facing one another which led to actual debate instead of the canned 30 second answers found in United States Presidential debates.
Still, everything that happened, the problems and the decisions that worked out well, were determined by companies and the political players themselves which allowed for manipulation that was not necessarily in the interest of the Canadian people.
Solution #1: Creation of a Canadian Debate Commission
Debates are necessary to inform voters of the intentions of those they have the option to vote for. They are of such importance that they should not be left up to companies or to power struggles between political players. There should be concrete rules and a body to govern debates and implement those rules. The United States has the Commission on Presidential Debates and Canada should adopt a similar style of organization run through Elections Canada.
Solution #2: Criteria for Candidate Participation
There should also be actual rules about who can participate in a debate. The tradition of only including those leaders of parties who have seats in the House prevents parties who have notable national support from growing that support in the same way that others are allowed to. There should be a minimum level of popular support required in a previous election to be present at the debates as simply letting every party running anywhere participate would be chaotic and ultimately not help voters make their decision. I would argue 5% national support to be a reasonable threshold for participation.
Solution #3: Criteria for Party Participation
Additionally, to participate in national debates parties should have to prove that they are actually interested in engaging voters on a national level or risk losing the opportunity to speak to the nation at large. Political parties should not only be required to meet 5% in popular support to have their leader participate in debates, they should also have to run a slate of candidates at what I would call ‘referendum’ levels. Referendums generally require a majority of jurisdictions and the overall population to approve a motion for it to be passed (7/50 formula of the Repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 for example). In this case, parties should be required to run candidates in ridings that cover a total of a super-majority of the population (60%) in a super majority of the total ridings (60% or 185). Parties and their leaders who do not wish to address the majority of the population with their policies or their candidates would not participate in national debates.
Solution #4: Legal Force
It would be legally required that the leader of each federal party satisfying the above criteria be present at the debates. This would become part of election law.
Solution #5: Regulation of Debate Format and Topics
The format of the debate would be regulated by the debate commission and the length of discussions on various topics would be decided by the commission based on relevance to civic debate at the time of the election. However, certain topics would be mandatory to cover even if only briefly during every debate. These should include:
- the economy and taxation in particular
- energy, the environment and natural resources
- foreign policy
- health care
- democratic reform
- intergovernmental affairs between federal and provincial and territorial levels
- government ethics
- Aboriginal affairs
Solution #6: Weekly Regional Debates in our Official Languages
Finally there should be a requirement about the number of debates to be held. A federal election in Canada must be at least 36 days long by law. With this many days in a campaign, a campaign would last five weeks and there could be five different weekly campaigns. In the interest of fairness, there should either be an equal number of debates in each official language or they should either be half and half with one bilingual debate or they could all be bilingual. If they are to be in different languages, two and two would make the most sense. The fifth debate week could be bilingual or be scrapped, letting the final week of the campaign to be set aside for voters to take all they have learned and decide on who to vote for.
With four debates there is also an opportunity to hold one in each of Canada’s four regions, giving the entire country greater access to their political leaders and their ideas. A debate could be held in the west, in the east, in central Canada and in northern Canada. Perhaps the debate commission could even rotate locations within those regions over different election years.
Knowing the games played around the debates in the last election and being aware of the multitude of solutions that can be implemented, I believe the course to take is obvious. Improving civic debate in Canada should start with the most visible civic debate that exists in this country, the federal leaders’ debate.