I know I’m not the first person to say this, but the time has come to take election debates out of the hands of broadcasters and the political parties. There are just too many impediments to organizing a fair and workable set of debates that would serve the electorate as opposed to the party leaders and the broadcast schedulers.
I have been a delegate in the discussions of two political debates in my time in the news. What I saw from the inside is what I expect is still going on, that is: the party leaders dictating acceptable format based on their own needs, good debaters want more chance to debate, poor debaters want to limit direct discussion between the leaders, incumbents want as few debates as they can get away with, everyone wants to exclude the weakest parties, especially if they have an excellent debater as a leader (Elizabeth May being the obvious example). It is all extremely self-serving and the voter’s needs have never in my experience, ever been a factor in creating the rules.
Worse still, the party leaders never object to using blackmail to get their way. If you don’t provide the limits they want they threaten to not take part. In a sane world this would be ignored by the broadcasters. They would hold the debates exactly as they want because they are paying the freight. But television executives are basically cowards. They live in fear of losing access to one or more of the leaders. The CBC fears the loss of funding. They fear a public backlash from supporters of a leader who refused to take part. They chase after the idea of fairness and balance which can only be proven by having all the leaders attend. So inevitably they give in to every demand by every party leader. This is a recipe for the blandest of debates and the least amount of light and electricity. Canadian political debates are designed by the sitting Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to provide the least amount opportunity for failure, the least amount of opportunity for real debate and the smallest chance of getting into any substantial discussion of the important issues. Oh, and you are never allowed to call out a leader for refusing to answer the question or fudging his or her remarks.
As if the party leaders don’t go about screwing it up enough, the broadcasters for their part, show little or no interest in developing any real debate. When I have been a part of the discussion almost ninety percent of the meeting time has been taken up by finding the absolute right time to hold the debate. For the networks, that means staying away from their top shows. Global would rather not lose a new episode of House, CTV can’t possibly lose an episode of Canadian Idol, CBC will not allow the debate to interfere with the hockey playoffs. I never heard any discussion about the best time for the voters.
Of the remaining ten percent of the discussion, most of the time is spent on venue and who will be the host broadcaster. As if that makes a difference to anyone. Global, CTV, CBC can all provide studios if needed. They all have excellent crews and directors to pull the debate off. Since the costs are shared, I say who cares. Time discussing this stuff is wasted time. You could choose the broadcaster and the venue by lots and it would make no difference to any of us.
This time the broadcast consortium claims to have decided that Elizabeth May should not take part. I wonder. Since the deals were done behind closed doors we’ll never know. I saw the party leaders in my time claim that they had no say in a decision that was forced on the broadcasters. The broadcasters had to keep mum and the leaders took the high road. Who’s to say whether this was the case with the Green Party in this election?
The time has come to take the rules, the timing and the venue of the election debates out of the hands of the broadcasters and the party leaders. They have too much at stake to make decisions that are beneficial to the electorate. It would be great if we had a U.S. style commission to make the decisions. I loved it when the League of Women Voters ran the debates in the United States.
An independent group should be charged with creating the rules free from political interference. The rules should be set long before an election is called. When the rules are announced and the dates are chosen, the networks will have the option of covering the debate or not. I bet they will all be there no matter the rules and the time slot. The party leaders can opt out I suppose, but once again I will bet that no party leader will ever not join the debate, the political fallout would be far too costly.
Maybe then, we could actually have serious debates (I mean several during every election period) with rules that serve us all: rules that allow the leaders to take each other on; rules that allow for rebuttal and argument; rules that allow deeper discussion of the most important issues.
I can dream, can’t I?