Editorial: Don’t fetter political leaders’ debates


Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, left, exchanges words with NDP Leader Tom Mulcair during the French-language debate on Thursday, September 24, 2015, in Montreal.

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

Imagine a political party that campaigned on a vow to reform the electoral system. Now, let’s say that party won power, then abruptly broke its promise. Perhaps you’d doubt its complete sincerity on other issues around election fairness.

Of course, beyond its electoral reform retreat, there’s no reason to think the Liberal government would meddle with federal elections. After all, it’s boosting resources to protect our voting system from cyber and other threats – as it should.

But this week’s federal budget does dip into the electoral process, by pledging a new structure for federal leaders’ debates. And it puts $6 million – a small amount, for now – into supporting this move. We may get legislation setting out the new approach. Let’s hope not.

Here’s some background. In the 2015 election, the Stephen Harper government said it would not take part in debates run by the “consortium” – a cabal of major broadcasters made up of the CBC/Radio Canada, Global and CTV ­– but it was willing to participate in up to five other debates, and did. A great hue and cry followed its decision.

Yet in the end, the more laissez-faire debate landscape served voters well. Instead of one stuffy consortium go-around in English and one in French, Canadians got five faceoffs: three on general subjects, one on the economy and one on foreign policy. The sponsors or hosts of these debates ranged from the Globe and Mail to Google, from the Munk Centre to TVA, from MacLean’s to City TV. And ultimately there was even a “consortium” debate.

While the organizational uncertainty caused much fretting and jockeying, the result was varied, dynamic and educational. And it happened without any new federal legislation or money (OK, ignore that the CBC is taxpayer-funded).

Ask younger people where they get their news about political leaders. Likely not from the “consortium.” Yet we all want more youth to vote. If so, we must be flexible about experiments with different, emerging media for debates. Experimentation and flexibility, alas, are not what governments do.

But wouldn’t legislation ensure that leaders of smaller parties got in on the debates? Not at all; it might ensure the opposite. Remember, this government has already shown it dislikes electoral systems that might help, say, the Greens.

Governments should support Elections Canada in ensuring voting is honest and accessible. But how leaders debate, and who invites them to, is not its business.

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