Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Great Debate

Tom Axworthy is a guy who likes to toss ideas out there - he's sort of the Preston Manning of the left.

Anyways, Axworthy recently drafted a report on how to improve debates in Canada. I'd originally scribbed down some notes when his report was first released, but never got around to posting them. Then I scribbled down some other notes after listening to the Macleans democracy forum. So, since anything beats talking about the Liberal Party right now, here are some thoughts on how to improve election debates in this country. Feel free to debate away in the comments section.

First, a sampling of Axworthy's suggested improvements:

1. Ban the Bloc from English debates: Terrible idea, for the reasons listed by Chucker Canuck, an anglo Quebecois. We need to get away from the idea that "Quebec = French" and "ROC = English".

If you want to set some criteria where you need to run in half the seats coast-to-coast to participate, I'm fine with that - but that means they'd be out of both the English and French debates.

2. Mandatory participation: No one ever skips the debates anymore, but the threat is always there, so I'm on board with this one. Axworthy says a party leader who skips the debates should lose their public subsidy - at the very least, it should be enshrined in law that a man in a giant chicken suit gets to stand behind the podium of any debate truants.

3. Create a Debates Commission to take the power away from the networks: Agreed. Tom and I are both Liberals and, as a result, we both feel there is no problem too big or too small that a commission can't solve.

4. Run-off debate: This would be held the last week of the campaign, among the two leaders doing the best in the polls. I've suggested this in the past, and think it's a great idea.

Dippers won't like it but, realistically, only 2 people can become PM, and such a debate could lend itself to a real clash of ideas and great television. And, hey, if the NDP ever run a good campaign, to the point where they rise to second in the polls, it would cement their leader as a legitimate contender for the title of PM.

So I like 3 of the 4 recommendations the Globe highlights - it's a 120 page report, and I'll confess to not having read the entire thing (or even being able to find it online). So I assume there are a few more ideas sprinkled in there. But, either way, here are some other changes I'd like to see:

1. Scrap the English/French debate divide: Andrew Coyne's been a proponent of this for a while, and it's grown on me. Instead, make all the debates bilingual. For many of the same reasons listed in point 1 above.

2. More debates: Why only 2 debates? This is the one chance to have an honest exchange of ideas and for voters to see the leaders interact, and all we give them is one debate in their own language, usually scheduled up against Survivor? That's stupid. I would have at least 3 debates plus the final week run-off. Just mix up the formats to keep it fresh - do a town hall, a YouTube debate, podiums, chairs, whatever.

3. Have clear criteria: Do we really have to wait until during the campaign to debate who gets into the debate? There should be clear rules, defined in advance. Say, for example, you must meet 2 of these 4 criteria:

-5% of the vote last election
-10% average support in opinion polls over past year
-155 nominated candidates
-2 seats in the House of Commons

I'm not necessarily suggesting that be the criteria...but there should be something. If for no other reason, than to save us from having to read dozens of process stories on who gets included in the debates every election.



  • This would be held the last week of the campaign, among the two leaders doing the best in the polls.

    So your idea is to further marginalize the already marginalized. I actually have a better idea. Drop the two leading contenders from the last debate. Obviously they already have the advantage so this would somewhat even up the score.

    By Blogger Robert McClelland, at 9:16 a.m.  

  • "So your idea is to further marginalize the already marginalized."

    Sounds good to me. There is a reason they're marginalized after all.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:50 a.m.  

  • further marginalize the already marginalized

    Interesting word choice. It says a lot about the mind of a Dipper: the NDP cast as victims, marginalized by more powerful forces, not responsible for their 50-year+ legacy of failure at the polls.

    Get off it. The NDP are on the margins because they chose to be there, offering nothing but warmed over socialist ideology.

    I have an even better suggestion. Why don't we have two sets of debates, one for the grown-up parties with a chance of winning the election (Cons, Libs) and one for the also-rans (Greens, NDP, Bloc)? Maybe in 10 years when the NDP ditch the mustache, throw off the yoke of the unions and move to the centre, they can get promoted to the big leagues.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:56 a.m.  

  • I'm up for the musical alternative, personally.

    By Blogger Maestro, at 10:03 a.m.  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger leonsp, at 10:09 a.m.  

  • How would the country be different if we had discussed this before 1993?

    Perhaps either the Bloc or the Reform Party would have never gotten off the ground, or perhaps the National Party would have.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:51 a.m.  

  • I'd like to see 5 regional debates.
    The national debates just cover hot button issues,
    usually dominated by Ontario and Quebec issues......

    I'd like to see all 4 federalist parties debate
    Northern issues,
    Western Canadian issues,
    Ontario and Maritimes issues,
    and all 5 leaders debate Quebec issues.

    The regions are all so unique with very different issues from each other.

    By Blogger wilson, at 11:21 a.m.  

  • This would be held the last week of the campaign, among the two leaders doing the best in the polls. I've suggested this in the past, and think it's a great idea.

    Or we could change the electoral system and stop kidding ourselves that we live in a binary political universe.

    By Blogger Greg, at 11:22 a.m.  

  • Dippers should not be left out/marginalized,
    this was a party the BLOC and Liberals signed a coalition agreement with,
    obviously the NDP holds significant important in the Canadian politics.

    By Blogger wilson, at 11:24 a.m.  

  • and such a debate could lend itself to a real clash of ideas and great television.

    Sorry, I couldn't let this one pass either.

    Harper: In order to cut the deficit, I propose we cut taxes and hold the line on spending.

    Iggy: I totally disagree with this point of view. I think we should hold the line on spending and cut taxes, to deal with the deficit.

    By Blogger Greg, at 11:26 a.m.  

  • I still think my idea of a talent contest is best, with the viewers casting votes for 2 hours after debate is over.
    Harper-piano and singing
    Layton- guitar and singing
    Gilles-reading the FLQ manifesto
    Iggy-reading a chapter from one of his books.
    Lizzie-imitating a beaver.
    MC for the event-Rick Mercer.

    By Blogger maryT, at 11:33 a.m.  

  • maryT - Lizzie imitating a beaver.

    Good grief, how childish can anyone be. Hopefully, maryT is elperfecto in appearance.

    You tell kids not to do this kind of stuff and then we have adults thinking at a grammar school level making fun of someone's imperfections. Shameful.

    How did that childish and nasty campaign go when the Cons made fun of a disability of Chretien's?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:28 p.m.  

  • Lyn
    Did you also come out against Lib/msm going on and on with 'Harper is fat',
    If so, I salute you.

    By Blogger wilson, at 1:43 p.m.  

  • Wilson at 11:21

    I think this is a great idea. Canada consists of regions. I think point three is also important from CG. I mean, If there are no voted members in paralament, why should they be included in a national debate.

    There are a lot of Good ideas, and I agree that Quebec Seoeratest should not be included in the ALL Canada debate since they have no represenatives outside of Quebec.

    I think Rick would be a great chairperson, or anybody that can keep May's big mouth shut from interrupting all the other party leaders. She was the worst part of the so called debate last election.

    Unless of course they have a coalation, then only the leader should debate the Cons.

    By Anonymous Clown Party, at 5:00 p.m.  

  • I'd like to see pugil fighting instead of debates that aren't debates at all, just a shouting match and media speculation for the elusive "knockout punch" that hasn't happened since 1984.

    By Blogger Sean Cummings, at 5:04 p.m.  

  • http://www.queensu.ca/csd/documents/FITDebates_Rogers_Sept9.09.pdf

    I believe this is the report that talks about reforming the debates.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:01 p.m.  

  • And, hey, if the NDP ever run a good campaign, to the point where they rise to second in the polls, it would cement their leader as a legitimate contender for the title of PM.

    The NDP placed second in six provinces in the 2008 election - all four western provinces along with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Canada does not begin or end with Ontario and Quebec, something you should be well aware of. And while it's not likely at the moment, NDP growth is possible in Ontario in the face of further Liberal weakness; they're not far off from the 20 seat mark as it stands. Stranger things have happened - just ask Bob Rae.

    By Blogger JG, at 8:32 p.m.  

  • Ms. May , under any circumstances , should be invited .

    By Blogger Bill D. Cat, at 9:33 p.m.  

  • Sorry , should NOT be invited .

    By Blogger Bill D. Cat, at 9:36 p.m.  

  • If the criteria is to only have people in the debate who have a chance of being PM - I guess we can have two hours of Harper giving a speech alone! Let's face it, right now he is only only one with a chance to be PM. Ignatieff is politically dead.

    By Blogger DL, at 11:04 p.m.  

  • Lyn,

    Would you prefer having May in a tricycle racing segment?

    PS: since when is it an insult to be compared to Canada's most noble animal?

    By Blogger french wedding cat, at 11:09 p.m.  

  • C'mon, really? You want POLLS to determine who participates in debates? You all seem to have a frightening faith in the accuracy and neutrality of polls...

    You do know polls can be manipulated,both through design and interpretation, don't you? You do know that polls don't "prove" anything, they merely "indicate", right?

    Just because examining the entrails of various polls has apparently replaced reasoned discourse, or actually thoroughly examining the merits of policy direction by political actors, doesn't mean we have to cede our political rights to polls.

    By Blogger Party of One, at 6:46 a.m.  

  • "C'mon, really? You want POLLS to determine who participates in debates? You all seem to have a frightening faith in the accuracy and neutrality of polls..."

    You can add design specifications for the polls. Frankly polls are the only semi-objective way to have a criteria that will work for new parties.

    I think the downside of clear rules is that they can be more easily abused than ad hoc ones.

    Some of the parties meeting the 155 seat threshold include:
    The National Party (1993)
    The Natural Law Party (1993)
    The Marxist-Leninist Party (1980 almost in 1979)
    The Rhino party was close in 1980

    Ejected candidates could cut a deal with fringe parties to change their affiliation, giving the fringe party a spot in the debates.

    The other issue has to do with getting rid of dead parties. Lets say when the Tories merged, the Progressive-Canadians won their lawsuit and were legally, but only legally, the inheritors of the PC party (but everybody left and joined Harper). So long as they could scrape up enough money to field 155 candidates, which is not too hard, they would get a spot in the debates.

    Why do I care so much about letting in small parties? Because the more voices in the room, the worse the general quality of debate. It means you have less time for each question. It means that the parties 85% of us will vote for could end up with only 50% of the time. It is particularly unfair for government parties, since opposition parties are all likely to criticize the government, giving it very little time to respond.

    By Blogger french wedding cat, at 5:11 p.m.  

  • "Because the more voices in the room, the worse the general quality of debate."

    Yeah, democracy is messy, isn't it?

    I'm not even sure that what we do have constitutes "debate", really.

    More like posturing, personal attacks, and the avoidance of actually articulating ones policies and ideas ('coz otherwise, you know, people might actually try to hold you accountable for what you say!).

    I would prefer a format with 4 or 5journalists putting each candidate on a "hot seat", and having them answer specific questions...the initial questions could be the same, the rest would arise from the responses.

    It wouldn't even have to be journalists. Could be academics. Could be business leaders. Could be social activists, or environmentalists. Could be our moms.

    In any case, that would tell us a lot more about the candidates than what currently passes for "debate".

    Furthermore, I wish that there was less focus on party "leaders", and more on local candidates. Most of us don't get to vote for PMs anyway.

    By Blogger Party of One, at 5:28 p.m.  

  • So many problems. Where to begin.

    First, let's figure out the scope of the question: which debates are to fall under the realm of this new set of rules? Is there some well-defined criteria that says that two or more Party Leaders can't address issues outside this Debates Commission? That if one leader responds to another's policy in a newspaper it is clearly outside the scope? Perhaps the Party Leaders aren't allowed to debate each other, but are allowed to debate the other candidates in their riding? What if Elizabeth May decided to run in, say, Etobicoke?

    Then, there's the problem of nationalization of private interests: the airtime provided for free by the networks for the debate is not owned by Elections Canada, but by the networks. Imposition of a set of rules should be accompanied by a payment of market rates for that airtime. But once it's bought with taxpayer money, why does any Party get to set the arbitrary rules for excluding other registered political Parties?

    No. Debates should be encouraged throughout the election period, and the host should be encouraged to set the rules for participation according to their preference, with the invitees free to accept or decline the invitation. Rules must not be arbitrarily imposed.

    The last thing we need is for the discourse through the debates to be controlled by third parties: let the participants agree to the terms of their participation.

    By Blogger Paul, at 6:06 p.m.  

  • Liberals! Always want to have rules and somebody (preferably a Liberal) in charge.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:34 p.m.  

  • I love the big suits of liberal party.

    By Anonymous cowboy boot, at 10:14 a.m.  

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