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Another election debate oped

I have another piece on election debates in today’s National Post. This one goes a little further than the last, arguing that while the British debates were a sucess, that they happened at all was a matter of happenstance. The lesson to learn is if we want debates that put the public good ahead of the calculus of political parties then we need an independent debate process.

Oped is here, and below.

LEARNING FROM BRITAIN’S THREE GREAT DEBATES

After last night’s third and final debate, there is now no doubt that televised leaders’ debates have proven their value to the British electorate. Snappy, substantive and high-stakes, they have made for great television.

By elevating a third party, and shining light on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, they have provided a vital character analysis of the prospective leaders–a prolonged stress test that you simply don’t get in press conferences and media scrums. As the PM said in his closing remarks, “these debates are the answer to everyone who says that politics doesn’t matter.”

However, we should remember that the very holding of the debates was a matter of happenstance. The United Kingdom, like Canada, has left all aspects of debate planning to the will of the main political parties. As such, these first ever British debates occurred only because the incumbent leader, Brown, was looking for a political game-changer. Going into the election, Brown was down in the polls. He needed a way to restore the electorate’s rattled faith in politics following the MP spending scandal.

Once Brown endorsed the debates, 12 representatives (two from each of the parties and networks) spent four months negotiating, in private, all of the details — a process described by one participant as “mind-numbingly detailed.” Yet the results were a success.

Why leave the negotiation of future debates, including whether to have them at all, to the whim of the party and leader who is ahead in the polls at election time? After the success of the UK debates, Canadians must ask themselves the very same question.

Unlike the U.K., we have a history of election debates. However, they have been, almost without exception, predictable and dull. Our debates are stultifying because the negotiating process surrounding the planning occurs only once an election has been called, and because the party ahead in the polls wants, and gets, the safest (i. e., most boring) format, and generally nixes the holding of multiple debates.

How would we design an election debate process that put the interests of the electorate ahead of the parties’ preferences? One way to accomplish this would be the establishment of an independent election debate commission.

Having reviewed relevant international comparisons, we believe the guiding principles of such a commission must be independence and transparency. This means, first and foremost, that it must operate as an independent charitable civic institution, rather than either a part of Elections Canada or a new government bureaucracy. This would look much like the League of Women’s Voters, which independently ran the U.S. presidential debates until they were co-opted by the political parties.

Planning of the debates would occur between elections, with the commission transparently negotiating the rules using the goal of a substantive policy debate as the primary interest. Models would draw on international best practices, and would likely include a range of debates, held throughout the campaign, on various policy issues.

Money to fund the debates would be raised privately through charitable contributions, releasing the networks and their shareholders from a not inconsiderable financial burden.

We expect that there will be intense pressure for political parties to participate in debates organized by an independent entity for the public good, which enjoys widespread public support.

Such a model would also relieve the TV networks from the uncomfortable position of having to negotiate with the squabbling political parties they are supposed to be covering impartially, and which regulate them once they form government.

If we want debates in Canada that can rival, in style and substance, their new U.K. counterparts, then we need a new model for their planning and execution. All it will take is a genuine citizens’ movement to reclaim Canada’s election debates so they serve the long-term public good as opposed to the short-term interests of our would-be leaders.

– Rudyard Griffiths and Taylor Owen are currently working on an initiative to reform the Canadian televised election debates

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