09 January 2006

Keeping it simple, too simple

Once again, Canadian voters are getting ready to cast ballots in a federal election without the benefit of a fair national debate thanks to the collusion of the major television networks and what the media call the "main" political parties. The problem is the leaders' debates, which are restricted to the main parties by arbitrary and self-serving qualification criteria. Any party that isn't already represented by an existing member of Parliament doesn't get to play ball.

Not that that's unusual for a 21st century post-industrial democracy. The United States has evolved an even tighter establishment control of the electoral process, institutionalizing the Republican and Democratic stranglehold on Congress as the only two legitimate options. And just as in Canada, alternative voices are excluded from televised debates and afforded little coverage by the traditional media.

Because Canada goes to the polls in two weeks, and because I'm still eligible to vote there, I'm obsessing on this issue for a bit. It might seem be a bit off-topic, but it's closely related to the standard Island of Doubt theme of attempts by those wielding power to restrict independent thought and convince the average the citizen that life is full of either-or, black-and-white choices, instead of the subtle shades-of-grey judgments we really have to make.

The big problem with Canada's televised leaders' debates is that they are run by a cabal of network executives answerable to no one. The biggest player, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is supposed to operate at arm's length from its government masters, but on the matter of whom to include in the debates, it's clear that a massive conflict of interest is preventing it from doing the right thing and opening up the debate. The private members of the network consortium simply want to make the debate easier to orchestrate. Fewer participants makes for more compelling television. Or so the best argument they can make goes. Sad, really.

The Green Party has, once again, been excluded from this year's round of debates, the second and third of which air tonight and tomorrow. Once again, it is complaining to the federal telecommunications watchdog, the CRTC, but there is no hope in hell in that the complaint will do any good, despite the fact that none of the arguments used by the networks to limit the debate to the main parties holds a millilitre of water.

To wit: The networks say they need objective criteria to determine who does and who doesn't get to debate. But the Green Party has attracted almost as large as share of public support as the New Democratic Party, which does get to play. The Green Party has never elected a member of Parliament, but neither had the Bloc Quebecois when it was granted the honor of taking part in 1993. The Greens are running candidates in every riding, something both the NDP and BQ have repeatedly failed to do.

Exceptions prove the rule: the Reform Party joined Parliament thanks to a byelection win in a single riding in the late 1980s, and then was granted participation in the leaders debate on that basis alone, despite the absence of a significant national support or a national slate of candidates. The BQ arrived on the scene only when a handful of Conservative Party MPs invented the new party in-between elections, and was granted participation on that basis alone, despite a single election win or significant national support or full slate.

The bottom line is, getting involved in the leaders debates leads to increased support, as past federal. and provincial elections resoundingly proves. So for the networks to argue that a party doesn't get to debate until it has attracted enough support to get elected is a Catch-22.

See here for more details on these issues.

I'm not naive. I understand why these things happen. If, for example, the BQ had been excluded in 1993, the entire province of Quebec would have busted a gasket, politically speaking. The same thing applies to the Reform Party and Western Canada. So far, support for the Greens is too diffuse to be of concern to Ottawa. But that doesn't make it right. And when you're talking about elections, there should be at least a token attempt to be fair.

There's nothing Canadians can do about the private networks without a law requiring them to stop playing favorites. But we should expect more from the CBC that a single tautological line in today's story on tonight's debate: "The Green party, meanwhile, has complained to the CRTC that leader Jim Harris isn't being allowed to take part in the debates, so he can't be heard at all in that forum."

Each year, I write a letter to the CRTC and add my voice to the list of those complaining about the exclusion of the Green Party. There's also an online petition (it won't do any good, but there are more than 43,000 signatories so far, so what harm can it do?)

For the record, I've already voted (via special ballot through the mail), and it wasn't for the Greens. In the riding in which I chose to vote, the Western Arctic, the best candidate by far, Dennis Bevington, is running for the NDP. So there.


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