How should we (formally) debate this year’s election?

It’s time to debate the debates


Our British cousins have been having a bit of a row over the question of how many leaders’ debates to conduct before an election this spring, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has now agreed to participate in one leaders’ debate during the U.K. general election this spring, a debate that will have seven leaders on stage.

Conversly, on this side of the Atlantic, Conservatives have floated the possibility of Prime Minister Stephen Harper participating in as many as five debates during the next campaign.

There is probably a vaguely decent argument to be made that leaders’ debates are an unhealthy distortion of the parliamentary system, of the sort that contributes to the centralization of power and disempowerment of the legislature by elevating party leaders to the stature of presidential candidates. We vote for MPs, after all, not leaders.

But there’s so much to be said for open debate that I’m willing, if just this once, to set aside such fussing.

It is at least heartening to see Conservatives promoting the notion of more debate. Presumably, this suggests that Conservative candidates in all 338 ridings won’t be skipping too many all-candidates’ debates this fall. It is also to wonder whether Harper has discovered a new fondness for debate, or whether these anonymous Conservatives haven’t yet run their idea past the boss. Back in 2011, the Prime Minister was quite content to go with two debates of two hours each, one in English and one in French:

“We’re going to have four hours of debate,” said Harper. “I think that’s more than enough for people. I want to get out and campaign and meet Canadians. I don’t want to spend it meeting the same party leaders I meet everyday in Parliament.”

Perhaps those Conservatives, with Harper’s four-hour limit in mind, imagine five mini-debates of 40 minutes each.

Complicating matters here, as in Britain, is the increasingly regular question about who should be included in a debate of party leaders.

Public and media pressure eventually resulted in the inclusion of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in the 2008 debates, but, three years later, May was out, at least in part because the Greens did not have an MP in the House at the time. (Blair Wilson’s brief foray as Canada’s first Green MP meant that, at the time of the 2008 vote, the Greens could claim representation.)

Unless we want to put 21 leaders on stage, settling on the number of participants is going to require drawing a line somewhere. One could, for instance, take the leader of any party with at least one MP in the House of Commons at dissolution: That would mean including the leaders of the Conservatives, NDP, Liberals, Greens, Bloc Québécois and Forces et Démocratie. That, though, means a) including two parties that only run candidates in one province, and b) limiting the involvement of the leaders most likely to be prime minister after the election.

One could try to establish a different standard—say, official party status in the House of Commons (bestowed upon any caucus that numbers more than 12) or a national slate of candidates (perhaps something like a minimum of 300 candidates). But both those thresholds could mean excluding relatively significant parties. (The Bloc would be barred in either scenario, the Greens would be excluded by the former.)

There’s also the very real possibility that excluding a party can become a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Leaving out a party because it isn’t popular enough will likely only make it harder for that party to become popular enough to be included.

There is, perhaps luckily, no legislation that demands a certain number or format. And the televised leaders’ debate is still a relatively new addition to our democracy. The first was in 1968, but there wasn’t another until 1979, and only since 1984 has it been a regular tradition. (The United Kingdom only just had its first televised leaders’ debates in 2010.) So there should still be plenty of space to try different approaches.

For instance, there could be two debates again this fall. One could feature the leaders of all six parties with representation in the House of Commons. The other could include Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau. And both debates could be bilingual (as opposed to the recent format of one English-language debate and one French-language debate). The leaders excluded from the second debate would probably complain, but two different formats might be a decent compromise.

That could probably be adapted to increase the number of debates. Perhaps we get three with Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau, as well as one with everyone. Or perhaps two of each. Or three of one and two of the other. (Personally, I’d take the six leaders, add representatives from 10 other parties, seed a bracket, then stage a single-elimination tournament over the course of the election with the public voting online for the winner of each match-up, like American Idol meets the NCAA basketball tournament.)

The other possibility that should be considered is that alongside the leaders’ debates there could be debates along portfolios between ministers and critics. So, for instance, we could have an economic debate between Joe Oliver, Nathan Cullen and Scott Brison. There could be an environment debate between Leona Aglukkaq, Megan Leslie and John McKay. A foreign affairs debate would have Jason Kenney, Paul Dewar and Marc Garneau. Each of those debates could be town halls with randomly selected voters. (I would also be interested in seeing House leaders and whips teamed up to compete in a round of Supermarket Sweep or Just Like Mom.)

In Britain, both the BBC and Sky channel will have leaders face questions from studio audiences—and I’m a big fan of making our politicians face the public.

The British debate about debates has been bolstered by the spectacle of politicians publicly challenging each other to rhetorical fights. Ed Milliband challenged David Cameron earlier this month, and shadow chancellor Ed Balls has challenged George Osbourne.

The ultimate goal here is not merely to set the candidates for high office directly against each other for the purposes of debating the relevant issues of the day, but to pull political leaders out of the stage-managed TV shows they would like to create for themselves when they campaign, and expose them to challenge.

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