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Debating the debates – round two

Posted by cwaddell under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Christopher Waddell

So we are back where we were in 2008 – should Elizabeth May be in the leader’s debates or not?

Of course she should, as her party receives an annual subsidy based on votes and in 2008 collected 937,613 votes – 6.8 per cent of the total votes cast.

The broadcasters’ rationale that only parties with seats in the House should be in the debate is a circular argument – almost no coverage of smaller parties even during campaigns and then keeping them out of debates so they don’t get the visibility that might help them get enough votes to elect an MP – designed to make it almost impossible for any new national party without a strong regional base to get in.  (Where is the Competition Bureau when you need it!) In fact it is an approach designed to encourage the further regionalization of the Canadian political system.

In 2010 as media coverage of elections fractions in a million directions between the mainstream media and everyone else on the Internet, leaders’ debates are too important as the one common media experience open to all voters to assess the alternatives, to remain the personal fiefdoms of the political parties and their broadcast colleagues.

Here are my conclusions from round one of the debate about the debates in the media chapter in The Canadian Federal Election of 2008 – the book Carleton produces after every election.

“In the United States, the Commission on Presidential Debates has existed for twenty-one years with a mandate “to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” It is time for Canada to copy that approach and create an independent commission to organize all aspects of televised leaders’ debates in Canada. Work should begin to put that in place for the next federal election. [so much for that!] . . . The independent debates commission should set the rules and organize a debate in both languages (with simultaneous translation) in a different region of the country each week during the campaign. If parties want public financing for their candidates and tax deductions for individuals who make financial donations to their party, their leader must appear in each of the debates.”

All parties that meet the threshold for the per vote subsidy (more than 2% of the national popular vote or more than 5% in those constituencies it contested) should be invited to participate in the debate.

Furthermore the independent debates commission should have as an explicit mandate to explore and experiment with social media and other new forms of interactive communication to bring the public and party leaders together within the debate format.

These changes were long overdue in 2008 and even more essential today.

Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27