Against leaders debates

POTTER: Elizabeth May could make her exclusion
a point of pride


Here we go again. Just like last time, the “consortium” has made a decision not to invite Elizabeth May to the leaders’ debates.  And just like last time, after initial protestations that the decision is entirely up to the consortium, the party leaders are caving to some sort of perceived public pressure and suggesting that, oh, well, they would certainly be open to having the leader of the Green Party there after all.

I’m genuinely agnostic on the question of whether May should be there; I think there are defensible arguments to be made for both sides. But the question over whether to include her or not contains a tacit assumption, viz., that the leaders’ debates—as currently run—are themselves worthy democratic exercises. I think they are not.

Start by making a list of all the things people say they dislike about our political culture: the stage-management of public appearances, the scripted way in which  politicians stick to their talking points and never answer a direct question,  the hyper-partisanship, the casual character assassination, the reduction of opponents positions or views to caricatures…

And then think about what goes on at the leaders’ debates, where virtually every negative aspect of our political culture is exacerbated and amplified. This might be worth it if there was some sort of tradeoff, where voters learned important things about the men and women who were applying  for our top political job. Or if the debate served as a platform for the party leaders to put their best face forward, so that we could see them at their most prime ministerial.

But no one could plausibly make that case. For the two decades or so I’ve been paying serious attention, the debates have been a cringe-inducing affair. I can’t see how anyone ever comes away from them thinking that democracy has been well-served; if anything, the debates have probably long served as a powerful instrument of voter suppression.

Given that, it is hard to see why Elizabeth May wants to be involved in the first place. She could even make her exclusion a point of pride: While Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe are braying away like jackasses in both official languages, she could take the opportunity to do a little counter-programming: a town hall, a round-table, an academic lecture, a game of ping-pong… who knows? It might actually draw an audience.

Meanwhile, the debates need to be either radically changed, or simply abolished. There are lots of suggestions floating around, some better than others. My own preference would be three or four debates, each conducted according to the rules of passive bilingualism we used in my old department at the University of Montreal:  Each participant is entitled to ask, or answer, any question in the official language of his or her choice.

In my ideal scenario, only one of the debates would involve the leaders. The others would be between government ministers and their portfolio critics in the opposition parties.

This would serve two useful functions. First, it would help reduce the “winner-take-all” character of the current debates, where everyone is afraid to take a risk lest there be a fabled knockout punch. Second, it would rehabilitate the principle of cabinet government. Everyone claims to abhor the way our democracy has slipped into governing from the centre, but the leader-centric nature of the debates only reinforces that tendency.

If the debates can’t be altered in this or some similar way, I’d just as soon see them abandoned altogether. Think of it this way: If our elections had evolved without the debates becoming an entrenched exercise, and someone came along and proposed that we establish the four-or-five-ring circus that we’ve had for the past few decades, would anyone think it was a good idea?

VIDEO: Andrew Potter on why leaders’ debates are useless

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Against leaders debates

  1. I would like more debates, perhaps more tightly run. And less advertising.

    • Cool. Let's abolish the two bucks per year per vote, the election expense reimbursements, the unseemly political contribution tax credits…

      • I would have no problem by reducing each of them by a given amount, say a third.

        Your arguments in regarding this old saw are long exhausted, along with my willingness to further indulge you regarding them.

        • Whatever floats your boat. You said you wanted less advertising. I was just trying to help you out.

  2. I've always thought debates are for high school…..but if we're going to have one every election, then Elizabeth May should be there.

    • I'm starting my letter writing campaign to have OriginalEmily1 included. She has the same number of seats as May's party, and I can only imagine would pull a similar number of votes.

      Plus, I'd like to see a debate where, faced with evidence to the contrary of her opinion, OriginalEmily1 says "Sorry, nice try, but no."

      • I always go with evidence…just not Con party propaganda.

  3. There are only two parties that can win the next election, and if May is there, those two parties will get to speak less than half the time. How on earth this is a good idea is beyond me. The fact is, there is really no conceivable reason why the Green party should be there, a party that appeals to just 1 in 14 voters.

    • Duceppe is there….and only one province can vote on him

      Layton is there…and in 60 plus years the NDP hasn't even made Opposition, much less govt. Even the Bloc did that much.

      • You've made an argument to exclude the BQ and NDP. Good for you.

        The only reason they should be there is that they win ridings.

        • I said they should ALL be there.

          May is in 308 ridings, is Duceppe?

          • Wonderful! She beat her record (of running-and-losing in all-except-one) from the last election!

          • How long did it take Reform to get to a minority govt?

    • It's not about the politicians, s_c_f. It's about the electorate.

      • Yes, and most of the electorate (13 in 14 people) want to hear from the politicians whose parties actually win ridings.

        • Public pressure changed it last time….and another threatened uproar changed it this time.

          So don't tell us what 'people want'

          • Well, Jenn is telling us what the electorate wants so why can't s_c_f?

            I don't want Elizabeth May in the English language debates, and I don't want Gilles Duceppe there either. May because I don't see the Green party getting enough of a percentage of votes in any riding to be a serious player, and Duceppe because I can't vote for his party.

          • No, she's telling you what she wants. She doesn't claim to speak for the electorate.

        • But the 14th person still matters.

          Besides, the other leaders get lots of media exposure. The debate is almost the only place where I actually heard Ms. May the last time. I wasn't going out of my way to find her, mind you, but so I didn't.

          • You would think with the prospect of minority governments in the offing the electorate might want to get a look at all the candidates. I can't help but think that protecting Harper is behind the decision to exclude May. It's really Duceppe Harper should be afraid of this time around.

          • You're quite the conspiracy theorist. I'm sure Harper is responsible for tomorrow's weather as well.

          • I wasn't going out of my way to find her

            … has become an argument that she should be imposed on your time, instead? Wow.

          • Most emphatically.

          • I feel the opposite way. When I watch the debates I want to see the contenders go at it (primarily Iggy and Harper). I don't want to see those two sitting around for 60% of the time saying nothing while the non-contenders talk.

            What do people really want to see? The also-rans? Or the contenders? Do I really want to hear Duceppe go on about defending the interests of the separatists for the thousandth time? Do I really want to hear Lizzy talk about her policies that don't have a snowball's chance in heck of ever becoming reality?

            The last thing I want to see is Elizabeth May prattle on. I want to see the contenders debate each other. I don't want to see them sitting around for most of the time saying nothing. Think about it. In a room with five people, there are 10 possible 1-on-1 matchups. Therefore, we can expect to see Iggy and Harper debate each other for a measly 10% of the time. The other 90% of the time we will be a watching a conversation involving people who have no chance of winning the election.

            Do we want to see Duceppe and May debate each other? Or do we want to see Harper and Iggy debate each other?

          • I'm certainly not averse to having a Harper-Ignatieff only debate, but that isn't what we're talking about here.

          • There should be an Iggy-Harper debate on one channel, and a May-Layton-Duceppe debate on another channel. Everybody wins!

          • Yeah, that would be funny.

        • Technically, I believe that more Canadians than just those who vote Green want the Green Party in the debates. I don't claim to know what the number is, but I'm CERTAIN that it's higher than 1 in 14.

          • I won't vote for the Greens, but I certainly want to hear what she says.

    • May did reveal in her book that Harper had actually cheated in the last debate by bringing in notes. She may be being punished for that. Some reporter should ask her about that. And we have to ask how far does Harper/PMO/ Conservative Party power extend?

  4. These reservations, legitimate as they are, have nothing to do with May's exclusion. She's just too smart. She is articulate and quick witted. Ignatieff probably doesn't worry about being made to look like a fool, and that's why there are so many attack adds focusing on him. But Harper couldn't hold a candle to her intellect. The other "leaders" don't want to take the risk of facing someone that sharp.

    • Yeah, she was in the last set of debates in 2008, and her astounding intellect netted her party a grand total of 0 ridings. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Absolutely breathtaking. And this is even though the Liberals pulled their candidate in her riding just to help her out. And she still bombed.

      • And Harper only got a minority. The genius, the master chess player, couldn't close the deal. Don't tell me the post mortem didn't include Harper's debate performance.

        • So you're arguing Harper should not be in the debates? Interesting.

          • I'm saying he doesn'r do well in them. It's not May he should be worrying about this time.

    • Unfair! Harper may not be the smartest guy to hold the job, but he's of above average intellect. His problem is that he is ideological, anger-prone and at times inarticulate.

    • I would love to see crazy Lizzie in the debates. The more people see of her shrill hysterical rants the fewer people vote for her. Ever wonder why she never ran in her adopted home of Cape Breton? It's because we know her all to well down here. That's why she fled to the west coast, hoping people there hadn't had enough of her shenanigans. I suggest anyone debating her ask her pointed questions about her resume and bio. She keeps rewriting both it seems. Last week she indicated she moved from Cape Breton to the west coast because her daughter just finished school there. Her last residence was Central Nova where she ran a futile campaign against McKay and then fled to the west. She has not lived in Cape Breton in decades. Spent most of her adult life in Ottawa, close to the money. Cheers.

    • is that the same intellect which made her choose a seat she had no hope of winning?

  5. the debates have probably long served as a powerful instrument of voter suppression.

    Wow. You really think the apathetic non-voters got that way because they watched the debate?

    • Yeah, I thought that line was rather ridiculous as well. Voter suppression? Please.

      • Sure, why not? You could tune in to the debate as your one attempt to decide who to vote for and then decide that it's such a gong show with them all railing at each other that you just decide not bother. While I don't necessarily agree with Andrew's point it's not a completely absurd idea.

        As an aside, that's kind of how I feel about political ads. Almost every one I've ever heard makes me want to not vote for the party that made it.

      • She's like the RC Cola of Canadian politics.

        • Excellent idea! Time for a pop quiz: If the leaders of the parties where cans of soda pop, which brands would they be?

          • Iggy would be Perrier sparkling spring water. Layton would be Hi-C orange soda. Harper would be Coca-Cola. May would be New Coke. Duceppe would be a Pepsi with a Mae West and a Joe Louis, of course.

          • Well, that was easy.

  6. Last time the Greens had representation in the House of Commons (one MP) plus a demonstrated ability to poll more than 5% of the national vote. This time May has no MPs. So I'd rather she sit this one out, giving more time to the others.

  7. In the interest of increasing viewership of our political debates, why not adopt a format that has proven itself successful?

    I'm suggesting, of course, making the debates a reality TV series. The show will consist of weekly debates. Each week, viewers will telephone vote for the candidates they thought performed best; the candidate with the fewest votes will be eliminated from the race. The last remaining candidate gets to form the government. We'll call it: So You Think You Can Govern; or, Canada's Next Top Minister.

    • Well, if you really want them to increase viewership, put them in a squared ring in a stadium, with lots of fireworks, loud rock music, and two obnoxious commentators (I'll refrain from giving my selection for that position). Then bring the politicians out in flashy spandex and throw a folding chair into the ring with them.

      Personally, in that type of situation, my money'd be on May.

      • I thought we'd reserve that for Question Period.

        And my money's on Hulk Harper.

        • Ooo! Good thought! But if we reserve it for QP I'd be rooting for Baird myself. I mean, Harper's a sneaky one, true, but just the size difference..

          • I can already hear the shouted slogans:

            "Do you smell what the Bloc is cookin'?"

          • Hee hee!

      • Chairs shmairs. Throw in a couple of live tigers.

        • A cage for sure.

  8. A pretty comprehensive report on renewing leaders' debates was put out by Queen's early last year. Exec sum starts at the bottom of page 7, and it's worth a read. There are 9 recommendations for reform, including an independent commission to organize them: http://www.queensu.ca/csd/publications/Reform_Fed

  9. The recommendations from Queen's are good. I like these two recommendations, on who qualifies, and on having a second debate just one on one:

    5)Party inclusion criteria should be three of four: i) 5% support in national polls; ii) a seat in Parliament; iii) a full roster of candidates across the nation; iv) federal funding.

    7)In the final weeks of the election campaign, two leaders debates should take place; the first one featuring all qualifying party leaders, and the second featuring the Prime Minister and the party leader from the highest polling opposition party.

  10. The Leader's debate's don't have a great positive effect but could easily have a negative one with a misstep by a participant.

    It still ignores the cold fact that our system doesn't directly elect the Prime Minister. It does so indirectly by voting for individual MP's.
    I'll be putting focus on my riding where a long standing incumbent has won by increasingly narrow margins and faces a new challenger. The leader's are just there to spout party doctrine until the mean time.

    • Much praise from me to you. I won't even urge you to vote against the Incumbent.. what you're doing is better.

  11. Surely in this day and age some app could be developed that would allow any voter sensing the dangerous approach of suppression while watching the debates to blank the screen and kill the audio (or alternatively switch to a rerun of NCIS).

  12. I wonder if the drama around the Greens' inclusion in these debates is mutually beneficial: On the one hand, the Greens gain a mainstream audience, if not a mainstream status, by being included. But, also, May gets attention just by trying. Even if she is excluded, she builds some cred among her own people for being an outsider and a martyr. It's a win-win. But being seen on the inside is probably more important than throwing an alternative event, if the Greens are going to expand their base. On the other hand, by making a very public decision about who's invited, the major parties bring some attention to their own well-managed event. Further, having people get up in arms about whether or not the Greens should be included lends the debate a sense of legitimacy. If the borders of the debate need to be that closely controlled, then there must be some value to being on the inside – that must be where legitimate political discourse is happening.

  13. Maybe it's time to take the decision out of the hands of this shadowy "consortium." Why do advertising salespeople get to make decisions about how Canadians participate in election conversations anyway?

    The airwaves are publicly owned and during elections we should reclaim space for election programming, debates, forums, whatever we need for our democracy and free of their interference. The broadcasters make scads of money off elections by selling time for political advertising. They also sell plenty of advertising during their spin heavy news coverage of election campaigns, so why shouldn't they contribute some air time to fair and free discussions about policy and politics?

    • What "shadowy" consortium? It consists of the five networks who wish to air the debates. Full stop. They are publicly traded companies who must report to shareholders. No wait, except the CBC, they get a billion+ taxpayer funding and refuse to give out any facts or figures as to what they do with it except demand more taxpayer money.

      • Then you'll have no trouble telling me the names and titles of the representatives on the consortium, hmmm?

      • There used to be this crazy old idea that the air through which the broadcast waves travel is public.

  14. It will be very interesting to see if there is enough public outcry about this to reverse the decision, like last time.

    Somehow I doubt it.

    Environmental issues have completely fallen off the radar in this campaign and I think many found her to be a rude and constant interruption in the last debate.

    Having said all that…I doubt it will have much impact either way. These "debates" have become quite meaningless and have come to resemble "Question Period" with everybody trying their best to get their "sound bytes" in as the media frantically searches for the "knock out punch."

    • Follow up…looks like according to the news today the consortium has shut the door completely on May.

      Looks like the Green lawyers can officially start counting billable hours…however its pretty clear that venture will be a lost cause…(I mean for May…not the lawyers.)

  15. Regarding two of your proposals namely "passive bilingualism" and additional non-leader debates.

    Passive bilingualism may function well at U de M, but would not be a satisfying experience for many (especially anglophones outside of Quebec) since simultaneous translation while often accurate, is not very engaging. Moreover, with the present party leaders there will be a tendency (despite their best intentions) for English to dominate, thus (quite possibly) further alienating French speaking voters.

    However, your suggestion of other televised debates between ministers and their 'shadows' is more appealing. It would provide an opportunity for particular topics (finance, the environment, etc,) to be discussed in detail and remind voters that the political parties consist of more than just the leaders and their immediate entourage.

  16. Getting excluded from the leader's debate (at this stage) is the best thing that could happen from Elizabeth may's perspective – because she's getting some press. Otherwise she'd be largely ignored. so, I say let her in and end this – simply because I want her to fade away.

    The Green party officially is running in one riding – Saanich Gulf Islands. They made that choice – to focus on getting her elected. And she/they have been campaigning there non stop with all the resources and perks afforded the leader for what, a year and 1/2 now? So, I say – let her into local debates with Gary Lunn.

    If they want to have a round table b**chfest like before – *yawn* – she's well equipped. But I'd rather see a two way (Ignatieff vs Harper optional Layton) featured elsewhere. it might even be an adult discussion.

  17. I would like to see a debate between the oppostion party leaders only! – after all when you get all party leaders there lately they all spend all their time focusing on the PM – WE GET IT everyone hates harper BUT the real fight at the polls for those who don't want the CPC is between the other parties. I would like to see Iggy , jack, Gilles and Elizabeth go at each other :) could be a lot more interesting becuase let's be honest that is where the struggle is if you want change then wwhich of the oppostion parties do you want to represent that change as it stands all most people know about them is they don't like Harper – duh!

  18. I think the debate is important but I agree with Mr Potter that there needs to be a stronger focus on substance.

    Unfortunately the debate is a TV event moreso than an election event: this means you have to keep in mind that it's made to attract viewers and not raise the bar in terms of ideas. I believe the debate needs to be taken away from traditional media and put up on the Internet by institutions such as schools or the parties themselves in order to improve it.

  19. Yes, yes, we're all aware you'd prefer to live in the states with their two party system, Potter.

    Welcome to Canada.

    • Erudite analysis like this must be why you're up to 115.

  20. One good thing about the debates last time? They forced the Tories to actually create and release an election platform before we all voted.

    • That and the question that was something along the lines of "Say one nice thing about the person to your right". I can't remember the answers now, but they were horribly uncomfortable.

      • Agreed. That was a good question.

          • Duceppe praised May for her commitment to environment.

            Harper told Layton they could work together on files they agree on despite their big philosophical differences.

            Dion praised Duceppe's commitment to Quebec.

            May said that Harper is a good dad. Hahaha, no really.

            Layton said that he can work with Dion.

          • Groan, it sounds so high school

          • it was cringe-inducing insincere high-schoolish cr@p.

            i prefer politicians au naturel, yelling and all that.

  21. The debates mainly serve to make English Canadians wish Duceppe was not a separatist and instead leading one of the other parties.

    • He can only get away with being the honest, blunt guy that he is because he really only has to pander to one specific group of people. He makes no bones about the fact that he's there for Quebec and Quebec only. If he represented any of the other national parties, he'd have a little tougher time being who he is.

      That being said, he's totally at the top of the list of leaders I'd like to go drinking with.

  22. Boycott TV advertised products.
    Unless Green Party leader Elizabeth May is allowed to participate in the debate, people who feel this is totally unjust should protest by boycotting the products advertised on television — and tell the companies that advertise why you are no longer buying their products.
    Boycott TV advertised products.
    Boycott them now.

    • No.

    • I'd rather just boycott May.

  23. That's the only 'evidence' ever offered on here for Harper's viewpoints.

    Now please stop wasting people's time with your mythical 'campaign'.

    • 'wasting people's time'? meh, maybe yours and mine but at least I don't troll the macleans website

      • Troll….'In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.'

        Since Macleans sets the discussion, we don't have trolls on here….beyond the odd post or so, and they are easily ignored.

  24. For the two decades or so I've been paying serious attention, the debates have been a cringe-inducing affair.

    Two decades would take us back to 1991, post-dating the famous 1984 "you had a choice, sir".

    Something like that, may happen again.

    C'mon, Andrew, don't you own a television? :)

  25. How come the so-called "Green" Elizabeth May never dares to discuss Canada's no. 1 environmental problem, mass immigration which leads to endless urban sprawl, more wear and tear on the infrastructure of our cities, more demand for energy, more cars on the road and tons of other problems? The fact the she prefers politically correct silence over actively taking on this issue means she has nothing important to say that would earn her a place at the leaders' debates. There's already enough intellectually deficient political correctoids getting air time in Canada.

    • so, are you some kind of anti-human green lunatic or are you just using the environment as a cover for your racism pretext to stop immigration?

    • Are you suggesting that if immigrants stayed in their countries of origin, they would not contribute to urban sprawl, or consume energy and other resources there?

  26. didn't I read somwhere that if we had an election in which only those under 25 years old voted… we would have a Green Party government… with May as Prime Minister…

    Yeah, I'm still laughing too.

  27. i suppose that's an explanation. as to how she'd be better of politically – that's a tough one, but if she cares about the environment more than her political career, she should probably advocate for the environment within one of the established parties.

    • which she did while in the Mulroney cabinet…I believe

      • Dear God, Lizzie was never in anyone's cabinet…Lyin' Brian occasionally played to her vanity and pretended to consult with her…and then go on his merry way doing nothing about the environment like every PM since(thank God). For pretending to listen to her crazy rants it made brownie points for him with the green numbskulls as the rest of the country was ready to string him up. After all the lying to parliament, taking money in brown envelopes from international arms dealers that has come out since, she still says he's the best PM we ever had. So much for her judgement, "intellect" and integrity.

  28. AP,

    Surely you’re not referring to the 2000 debate when you say they’ve been cringe worthy. That was comic gold.

  29. Found her to be incredibly rude, I mean really rude.If she comes in again, taking up precious time, I hope they let her know the rules.She loves to hear herself talk, and she has no seat in theHOC!

    • Yes…I found her to be quite the "ugly American" as well during the last debates.

      Rather ironic that she is now trying to sell herself as the poster child for civility in Canadian politics.

  30. The debate should between the two parties that have any kind of chance at winning and the others, including Layton and the traitor should not be there. There is never enough time for a satisfactory number of 'quality' questions with a crowd on the stage. I quit watching because I have no interest in what the fringe groups have to say.

  31. if shes in so also should be the rhino party and the marijuana party

  32. Who is this shadowy backroom cabal called a "consortium", and why do they get to dictate this? We don't even need them involved. Put it on CPAC and Youtube if we have to. A one on one would be a much better debate then the nonsense the "consortium" puts out.

    This is standard for media in Canada: the viewer doesn't matter.

  33. Elizabeth May's silly ego trip should not be indulged by allowing her to participate in the debate. She has already done enough damage to the country by syphoning off votes that might have kept Harper at bay.

  34. We need our politicians debating issues in a Public forum ( where citizens can put forth their questions) in order to make informed choices on whom we vote for as transparency is not exactly a strong suit with our present Prime Minister ,

    When you have a Prime Minister who is quoted**as saying: " We're not interested in multiple debates " I would have to ask him to define who the ' We're ' is that he's referring to . We live in a Democracy not an Autocracy Mr. Harper.

    ** Friday, April 1, 2011 Page A10 Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia

  35. Potter feels there's a "perceived public pressure" wanting Elizabeth May to be part of a Democratic Debate on issues?

    Perhaps Potter hasn't visited his ophthalmologist for decades, but the rest of us who did witness the last debates saw that the best and the brightest (CTV's Fife/Oliver confirmed) was Ms May with her sharp wit and intelligence asking questions that the rest of them were stunned by.

    If Potter wants to drown out yet anothe democratic voice before this historic Election, we have a suggestion for him to apply for a Spin Doctor's job with the Village Idiot currently in charge of this much-maligned country. We're certain the country bumpkins will let him in their inner sanctum. He deserves a place there!

    Well done, Pottie!

  36. How insufferable is this self-indulgent "I've been watching debates for years and I don't like them" column here!

    Andrew P wants us to believe that it's best to NOT hear these guys on what they believe our future should be?

    How elitist of Potter to insist that only learned, erudite academicians (like Himself!?) appreciate the nuances of democracy!

    Has it occurred to this Pontificator of macleans that the hoi polloi would want to hear what these monkeys have to say on how our bananas should be allocated? ???

    Give your self-importance a rest, and we'll read you more often….honest.

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