Monday, September 21, 2015

Elizabeth May should be in the Munk Debate

A few more political posts than usual here, but hey, 'tis the season.

Allow me to preface by saying that I will not be voting Green in this election.  Having said that, I do hold a certain respect for the party, its platform, and its leader, Elizabeth May, who - prior to the dissolution of Parliament - was the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands.

First, a bit of a background on the Greens and their leadership.

Recent History of the Greens

Prior to 2004, the Greens were regarded as a fringe party in Canada.  In the 2000 election, they reached what was then a high watermark of public support, with 0.8% of the popular vote (compared to 0.24% in 1993 and 0.43% in 1997).  But under leader Jim Harris, they achieved a much better showing in 2004, with 4.29% of the popular vote.  He repeated the performance in 2006, with 4.48% of the popular vote - over 650,000 votes cast in favour of Green candidates across the country.

In a proportional representation system, that would have translated to 13 seats.  In our system, that translated to zero seats.  But the 'per vote' subsidies being what they were, it got the Greens some funding.

In 2006, Elizabeth May took over the party.  She got off to a good start, running in a by-election in London North Centre, and achieving a second-place finish.  (The Liberal candidate won with 35% of the popular vote; May achieved 26% of the popular vote; the Tory candidate only got 24% of the popular vote.  As losses go, it was a big win for May.)

But the bigger win came when Blair Wilson, elected in 2006 as a Liberal, joined the Greens, officially giving the Greens their first seat in Parliament.

In the 2008 election, May ran in her home riding of Central Nova.  This was Peter Mackay's riding, and widely regarded as a Conservative stronghold (and, probably, a bad idea for May to run there).  But the Liberals opted not to field a candidate in that riding, and she took on the uphill battle.  She had a strong showing, but ultimately still lost.  Nationally, the Greens had their strongest showing ever, with nearly a million votes - 6.78% of the popular vote.  No seats to show for it, though, and Blair Wilson lost his seat.

And 2008 was really where 'participation in the debate' became a big deal.  Elizabeth May actively sought an invite from the media consortium, and the media consortium turned to the other leaders to get their thoughts on the topic.  Stephen Harper and Jack Layton replied that they wouldn't attend if May was invited.  Stephane Dion said that he didn't have a problem with May going, but it wouldn't be worth attending if Harper wasn't there.  And Gilles Duceppe didn't care.  So the consortium decided not to invite May.

But after a fairly significant public backlash, people started to change their tunes, and ultimately Elizabeth May was included in the 2008 televised election debate.

In 2011, the consortium actually did exclude May - the best arrow in her quiver in 2008, being a party with Parliamentary representation, simply no longer existed in 2011.

However, in 2011, the Greens changed their strategy:  Rather than running a scattershot national campaign, and pitting their best against Conservative Cabinet Ministers, they would run a concentrated campaign on ridings they could win.  As a result of this shift in strategy, their national percentage of the popular vote fell significantly...but May won her seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands.  Later, NDP MP Bruce Hyer crossed the floor to the Greens.

This Year's Debates

The debates have become very unusual in this election.  Harper boycotted the traditional 'consortium' debate altogether, instead agreeing to a series of debates hosted by independent parties.  And the other leaders, wanting to debate Harper, go where he goes.  It's somewhat concerning, because it really exploits the power of incumbency, to get to decide the venues (and, in a roundabout way, the format) of the debates.  I've argued before that the televised debate should be regulated under the Canada Elections Act, with clear rules regarding participation and format,  It's an important institution to Canadian democracy.

The Macleans debate, in August, included Elizabeth May.  The more recent Globe and Mail debate, citing the need for a 'focused debate', elected to exclude her.  Likewise, the organizers of the upcoming Munk debate felt that the format would be unduly hindered by inviting all six parties represented in the House of Commons.  (In addition to the 'big three' and the Greens, the collapsed Bloc Quebecois still held two seats, and there's another breakoff Quebec Party with seats, Forces et Democratie [Strength in Democracy], which formed last year when a Bloc member and and NDP member decided to start their own party.)

And one might reasonably ask if it makes sense to include regionalist parties like the SD or the BQ, particularly when they're at the fringe.  Nobody ever really thought that the Bloc had any place in the English language debates, but being a major party in Parliament, they were entitled to be there.  (Okay, personally, I found that Gilles Duceppe made the English language debates far more interesting.)  And few Canadians have even heard of the SD party.

So, in order to draw a principled line to keep the numbers down, the new buzz phrase is 'official party status'.  If you were following politics back in 93, you may heard the phrase used then, talking about how the Progressive Conservatives were reduced below the 'official party status' threshold.  The impact of official status is on certain Parliamentary privileges, like the right to ask questions during Question Period.

But the truth is that, constitutionally speaking, the impact of party status is quite limited.  We vote for individual Members of Parliament, and then they get together as a group in Ottawa and decide who will be Prime Minister, etc.

Representation in the House of Commons Should Be the Standard

The consortium has never excluded party leaders on the basis of a lack of 'official party status'.  With the almost-exception of 2008, representation in the House of Commons has always been the standard.

And yes, there are examples:  In 1993, Preston Manning of the Reform Party was invited to participate in the debate, on the basis of having one MP who won a by-election in 1989.  This created a debate with a then-unprecedented five leaders.  In 1997, despite having been reduced to two seats, Jean Charest of the Progressive Conservatives was invited to participate.

This makes sense.  If, as a party, you have enough support to represent us in our elected assembly, and to participate in the various debates on legislative initiatives the define government policy, then surely that's enough support to warrant participation in an election debate watched by millions of Canadians.

The nature of Canadian Parliament is changing.  More grassroots parties, both regional and national, are popping up, and earning some degree of public support.  It is not despite those parties, but because of them, that we must continue to respect this representation tradition.  Three of the last four Federal elections resulted in minority Parliaments.  It is very likely that the next one will be, as well.  And in minority Parliaments, 'fringe' parties can have a greater significance - it is conceivable that Federal policies could be made or broken by the votes of 'fringe' parties.

And so we need to hear from them.  It's crucial for our democracy.

As a footnote, I might be persuaded that parties created on the floor of the House of Commons, as the Greens arguably were in 2008 and as the SD is now, might be an exception.  (The Greens had a strong support base before then, though, whereas the SD can't show any level of grassroots support whatsoever from election results.)  Otherwise a hard-and-fast 'representation' rule could be open to abuse, with every independent deciding to form his or her own party.  (Don't get me wrong, I like Brent Rathgeber, a Conservative-turned-Independent MP from Alberta, and I think people would be well-advised to listen to him, but I wouldn't support him entering a leaders' debate.)

Elizabeth May is Worth Including

Those of you who have watched both debates, as I did, noticed a few stark differences between them.  Firstly, the Macleans format was just all-around better.  Paul Wells was an effective moderator, guiding the debate well but staying out of it, whereas the Globe debate was marked by various free-for-alls of all three talking over each other.

But the biggest difference was Elizabeth May.  On most policy areas, she absolutely shone in the Macleans debate.  While the other leaders were largely sticking to talking points, she looked unscripted, but was rapidly firing off various accurate and important facts, and checking the other leaders' facts on the spot.  She was sharp, and looked like the one with the best grasp of the issues, all around.  She was the only one who showed up looking to have an adult conversation about the issues facing Canada, and the debate was immeasurably better for her participation.

I particularly liked her zinger that whomever advised Harper that his moratorium on Senate appointments is constitutional 'needs to go back to law school'.  Because it's almost certainly true.

Her perspective was sorely missing at the Globe and Mail debate.  And while she was 'live-tweeting' her responses to the various questions...well, firstly, it isn't the same.  In a debate, she's putting a fact to Mr. Harper and asking him to respond to it; when live-tweeting, it's more like fact-checking.  Secondly, if you were trying to follow the bedlam of the debate itself, it was pretty much impossible to watch May's video clips at the same time.

So, organizers of the Munk debate, invite Elizabeth May.  She was elected to Parliament under the Green banner, as leader of a national party, with a wide support base across the country.

If you can't fit the leader of such a party into your debate format (whether or not that means you have to invite other leaders as well), then you have no business running a televised election debate in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. My 22 year old son in voting Green. He observed that they are the most true and consistent to their platform rather than pandering to special interests. I think senate should be organized based on "national popular vote" so that each party representing their share of the popular vote can nominate the number of senators.