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Oped in G&M on Election Debates

Rudyard Griffiths and I have a piece out today on how and why our election debates are flawed, and what can be done about it.  We have a lot of research on this, so feel free to contact me for details.

Let a Commission, Not Broadcasters, Call the Shots

Whether or not one agrees with the broadcast consortium’s decisions to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from the leaders debates and to rule out a one-on-one between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, the way in which those decisions were made highlight the fact that we do not have a coherent system to oversee an essential component of our federal elections.

Canadian election debates, despite being held since 1968, are flawed in virtually all aspects – from planning, to format, to distribution, to ad hoc decisions on participants.

First, our debates are not transparent. The way they are negotiated prioritizes the interest of the parties above those of the voters. These closed-door negotiations encompasses all aspects of the debate, including whether to have a debate at all – in effect, giving a veto to any one of the political parties. The threat of this veto could be what is keeping Ms. May out of this year’s debates.

Second, this flawed negotiation process, unsurprisingly, creates a flawed debate format. J. Jeffery Auer called the infamous 1960 U.S. election debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon “a double public press conference for simultaneous interviewing.” This, of course, is the ideal outcome for a politician, and precisely what you get when they make the rules.

Third, the sole medium used to disseminate the debates – television – is not in and of itself a sufficient way of stimulating public engagement. If the desired goal of the debate is public participation, it’s retrograde to limit debates to a single live viewing on one medium. In addition to allowing many more people to both watch and participate in the debates, using a broader range of online tools would also serve to democratize the commentary process – which research shows is often more influential than the debate itself.

Fourth, the considerable costs of holding the debates are born solely by the broadcasters and their shareholders. The 1997 debates cost $275,000 to produce, plus more than $3-million in lost advertising. If we consider debates to be an important part of the electoral system, it’s strange they are the only aspect not covered by electoral spending laws or by the public financing system.

Fifth, why do we have only two leaders debates? In a parliamentary system, we are also electing MPs and, ultimately, a cabinet, not just a prime minister. Why not hold issue-based critics debates throughout the election in addition to multiple leaders debates on specific topics such as health care, foreign affairs and the environment?

Finally, language has been a thorny issue throughout the history of our election debates. While the first debate in 1968 was simultaneously translated, we have since moved to having separate French and English debates. The result is that the French version invariably becomes the “Quebec debate.” There’s absolutely no reason why debates can’t be simultaneously translated, allowing for policy issues to be spread over the two debates. If aspiring prime ministers choose not to speak in both official languages, that’s their headache.

Since the 2008 election, we have worked as private individuals on a project to study our debate system and to look internationally for alternative models. It’s now quite clear that the debates must be taken over by an independent commission.

The core principles of such a commission should be independence and transparency. The commission would thus operate as an independent charitable civic institution, rather than either a part of Elections Canada or a new government agency. It would be government by a cross-partisan board of prominent Canadians.

Planning should occur between elections, with the commission transparently negotiating the rules using the goal of a substantive policy debate as the primary interest. The format should draw on international best practices, include a diverse range of debate styles and participant groupings, be held throughout the campaign on various issues, and leverage the latest technology for both broadcasting and engagement.

Money to fund the debates should be raised privately through charitable contributions, taking the burden of the cost away from the TV networks.

By demonstrating how debates can be more transparent in their organization and rule-making, more engaging in terms of their format and staging, and far more technologically savvy, an independent commission could have a far-reaching impact on the quality of public policy debate in Canada.

If reforms are left until after the next election, we will undoubtedly come up against the same reluctance to change the system that we’ve witnessed over the past two years. The time to reform the debates is now, while we have national attention on what is a clearly flawed process.

Rudyard Griffiths is the co-organizer of the Munk Debates and co-host of SqueezePlay on BNN. Taylor Owen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and research director for the Munk Debates.

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Foreign correspondents in an age of Twitter

My friend Mike Ananny and I have been chatting lately about the changing role of the foreign correspondent.  As the evolving democratic movements in the Middle East have shown, the way we learn about, and add context to, international events is rapidly shifting.  As the way we consume information changes, so too must the tools and roles of those tasked with relaying and interpreting the messages. This will invariably effect the role of the foreign correspondent.  This is obviously a huge topic, but below are some of Mike and my’s early thoughts on the subject, posted on The Mark today.

Why Reporters Still Matter in the Age of Twitter

What would it mean for the future of international journalism if – a big if – all revolutions were tweeted?

Until recently, most western societies viewed the world through the eyes of foreign correspondents. But if Canadians can now watch revolutions like Egypt’s unfold in real-time – via tweets, Facebook pages and Al Jazeera – then why should news organizations send foreign correspondents to far-off places?

Answering these questions means pausing to ask what international news means in an age of digital information networks.

First, how has the idea of the news story changed in a world of information abundance?

Traditionally, the foreign correspondent provided objective accounts wrapped in compelling and relevant stories. We now have access to millions of observations and accounts, creating a diverse and sometimes dizzying mix of information. The objective truth, summed up in the evening news, seems a thing of the past – but our need for a story remains.

If we assume that there exists a single thing called “the story” – the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian protests – that can be told by anyone, then we fall into an old and naïve belief in journalistic objectivity. We mistakenly think that the storyteller is irrelevant because facts are facts. To understand what events and facts mean, we need to know how information tells a story – a role traditionally but imperfectly fulfilled by international journalists.

Second, who is telling us stories about the world?

Do we trust Al Jazeera because they are based in the Middle East and have a geographic perspective that a single CBC crew cannot? Do we trust our Facebook friends because they tell us what we want to know, or what we need to know? If international journalism is about translating “other people” into terms that “we” understand, then we have to consider carefully who “others” and “we” are.

It’s easy to get information from almost anywhere, but hard to know how to understand it. Reading news today means multi-tasking among channels, sifting through networks of sources, accounts, and biases to build understandings that we trust, opinions we can defend. The idea of journalistic objectivity isn’t dead. Rather, it’s distributed among stories, people, and networks that we don’t yet know how to trust. Ideally, journalists are uniquely positioned to help us sort these out.

Third, what roles does nationalism play in globalized and decentralized media environments?

Despite claims of a flat digital world, nationalism still very much matters online. It was, after all, the national governments of Egypt and Tunisia that blocked and censored the internet during the recent uprisings. And, in many countries, internet service providers have close contacts with national governments that make it easy to censor and disrupt dissent.

On the media consumer end of the equation, nationalism is even more complex. At moments like the Egyptian uprising, what does it mean to produce an international report as a Canadian, tell a story to a Canadian audience, or listen to a report as a Canadian? Canada is far more ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse today than when many international reporting traditions were established. People are right to look to sources outside the mainstream media to understand international issues.

Where does all of this leave international journalism?

First, let’s invest not only in foreign, mainstream media reporting but also in networked infrastructures for international reporting that let us hear what we need to hear, not just what we want to know. Groups like Global Voices Online are an excellent start, but we need to sustain, develop, and amplify them.

Second, let’s not rely upon any one source, network, or system to bring us international news. Al Jazeera and the BBC cannot replace the CBC or CTV. And no matter how diverse we might think our Twitter networks and Facebook friends are, we must continually find new influences and redesign our online networks. Media competition is not just good business, it is increasingly vital to how we understand the world.

Third, we should demand more design oversight of privately held companies that structure much of how we learn about foreign issues. How are Twitter’s “Trending Topics” or Facebook’s “Top News” decided, for example? Simultaneously, we need to develop alternatives with more transparent algorithms and policies in order to support the conversations we need to have about international affairs as Canadians.

As we increasingly use online environments to decide what we think about international affairs, we need to ask whether we have the media infrastructure we need to build informed public opinion. Populist accounts and social networks can give us intimate insights into distant events, but we also need high-quality analysis to lead us through the complexities of international issues. Foreign correspondents are uniquely positioned to help us turn information into news and events into stories, but they will have to keep up with a rapidly evolving media and technology landscape. Here’s hoping they do.

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A new model for public policy debate?

Rudyard Griffiths and I wrote the below for the Guardian the week after the Munk Debates, and I forgot to post.  I have worked on the debates for a couple of years now, and they have grown and evolved significantly.  It has been an incredibly fun project to be a part of, and it will only get more so over the coming year as we hold two new debates and roll out some cool new online features.  Anyways, below are a few quick, and perhaps overly earnest, reflections on what the debates’ success may say about the state of our public policy discourse.

Last week, 3500 people in Toronto and 3,000 people online came together to watch a former Prime Minister and a writer debate one of history’s great questions – whether religion is a force for good in the world.  In the 72 hours following the event 20,000 hours of archived video were viewed and on January 1st, 240 million people will watch a broadcast of the debate on BBC World Service and BBC International.

There is no doubt that Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens were entertaining, that they surely advanced what is a prescient discussion, and that the event was made even more powerful by the timing of Hitchens’ illness and Blair’s recent conversation to Catholicism.  Both are giants, and the effect of them sharing a stage was electric.

Just as importantly though, the excitement surrounding this event confirmed our belief at the Munk Debates that there is a hunger for substantive public policy debate.

Over the past three years The Munk Debates has held debates on humanitarian intervention, aid, US foreign policy, health care, climate change and religion.  Debaters have included Niall Ferguson, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, George Monbiot, Hernando de Soto, Samantha Power, Rick Hiller, Stephen Lewis, Bill Frist and Howard Dean. In the lead up to each debate, we have held wide ranging public dialogues online and in print.  We have screened the debates in movie theaters across Canada.  The debates have now been viewed by millions around the world.  The live events sell out in hours. Yet the widespread perception remains that citizens are indifferent to public policy.

Perhaps though the public has tuned out not because they don’t care, but because the public policy debate has been co-opted by the language and style of academia, policy wonks and political speak.  The options presented to them are either tabloid style with no substance, or serious content mired with earnestness.

Our politicians reduce their platforms to campaigns slogans, our bureaucrats keep ideas under lock and key, and much of our media treats public policy as a polarity of political gamesmanship versus dry commentary. Between wonkish think tanks and Hello magazine, there is little in between.

This creates a vicious cycle, where the ideas get less and less substantive and prescient, and the rhetoric and style in which they are presented become increasingly debased. The result is a democracy in which few are engaged in our formal institutions and in our major policy debates.  But that doesn’t mean people don’t care.

The approach we have taken is the opposite of what is generally presented – to raise both the quality of the discussion and make it more entertaining.  This means drawing on the best international speakers.  It means producing policy debate in a theatrical, engaging style.  It means using the newest online and social tools.  Most importantly, it means treating the audience as the intelligent participants that they are, willing and able to both be serious and have fun.

One way to gauge the depth of the interest in such a model is whether people are willing to pay for content.  And they are.  Where as many media companies often struggle for small payments, the Munk Debates pay per view channel has been a huge success.  So far, we have averaged $1.50 for every hour of video watched online.  There is a case to be made that pay per view can be part of a new model for the funding of policy events.  If people are willing to pay for football games and prize fights, why not also for public policy debates?

Politicians, policy makers, and pundits take note – the public is not the problem, the problem is the way you are speaking to them.

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wikileaks is important, but it is not a revolution

Dave Eaves has a thoughtful reply to my wikileaks piece up on his site.  As usual, he gets at some of the meta questions surrounding this topic.   While we would usually have this convo over a long drunken dinner, below are a few points in response.

First, I 100% agree with Dave that the institutions of the 20th century were built for a different social, economic and political model, and need to be reformed.  One of these reforms will need to be far more transparency.  More open data is part of this greater transparency.  So yes, him and I are both incrementalists.

Let’s be clear about what Assange wants though.  He wants to bring down the system – in it’s entirety.  Just look at the zunguzungu piece: “Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity.”  Ah yes, the true sign of a false prophet – if only we know everything, then we will reach purity.  This is Maoist in it’s true sense.  Cleans the world of politics, then politics will be pure.  Demagogic absolutism at it’s core.

Second, and related, Assange is supposedly sitting on a huge data dump of a US bank.  While this is likely a database of emails amongst managers and executives, what would those that are heralding this new world of absolute transparency say if he releases the financial information of every client of this bank.  If his goal is to bring down the corrupt western capitalist system, why would he not release data that would bring the world economy to a standstill?  And if he does, what will the reaction be from those that view wikileaks as a relatively harmless, though inconvenient for the powers that be, truthsayer?

Third, on Rosen’s video, far from brilliant, I actually think he gets his two core points wrong (maybe it’s the Dewars).  Yes the role of press as watchdog has been degraded, but this is a bit of an old story.  If anything though, wikileaks has increased the role of the press.  Assange has 250,000 cables, and what does he do?  Instead of releasing them all on say, a wiki, and letting the wisdom of the crowds sort it out, he gives 5 old media companies privileged secret access to the data for several weeks before the dump. As such, it is the NYT, the Guardian and Der Speigel which are the primary filters through which we see the cables.  Far from their death-nail, wikileaks is the best thing to happen to the mainstream media in a decade.

Related, the second thing Rosen gets wrong is the reason leakers go to wikileaks rather than the traditional Bernteinian press.  He seems to imply that they trust wikileaks to do better things with the data.  That the press, having lost its watchdog role, is no longer worthy of a leakers’ intel.  But maybe one simply leaks to wikileaks because wikileaks has a better guarantee of anonymity and is way easier?  Imagine you are a junior officer in the US military sitting on a database you want to leak.  You could try to contact someone at the Washington Post via smoke signal, meet them in parking garages late at night, and hope that their J-School ethics course had enough of an impact that when they are thrown in jail by the US government they will not divulge you as a source.  Or, you could go to the wikileaks site and click upload.  Let’s not read to much into this choice.  I feel in this case Rosen has fallen victim to looking solely through his worldview – that the view-from-nowhere press is bad at everything.

Finally, all I wanted to highlight in my piece is that data exists on a continuum from those which could usefully be opened, to those that loose their value if opened and must remain secret.  I personally would rather my elected government make this decision.  Assange thinks everything government does should be open for us to see.  I don’t.  That being said, government will need to be pressured to do be more open, and part of this pressure should include calls for far more accountability.  Only a more accountable government will have the credibility to convince a skeptical public that the secrecy decisions they make on our behalf are the right ones.

Where, for example, are the detainee transfer documents that nearly brought the present parliament down a year ago? A process was supposedly designed to balance national security with transparent government, yet to date not a single document has been released.  It is a singular failure of both the Harper government and the opposition parties that this process has been treated with such negligence. And a more engaged citizenry would have demanded and empowered their representatives to act more responsibly.  Ironically, it is this sort of behavior makes leaks all the more likely, as both bureaucrats and citizens stop trusting the government with the powers of secrecy we give them.

And this is where Dave’s work is so important.  The question is not between absolute open and absolute closed.  This is not, as much as some might like it to be, a revolution.  It is not that romantic.  As Dave regularly reminds us, it is a question of how we transition our government and institutions from the 20th to the 21st century.  In this sense, it is, and must remain to be, incremental.

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Oped in Macleans on Wikileaks

I have an opinion piece in Macleans on Wikileaks.  In short, I think we need to think carefully about whether we really want Wikileaks to make our national security decisions for us, and what the implications are when they do.

Why Wikileaks will lead to more secrecy, not less

Wikileaks has struck again. This week’s release of thousands of diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies follows the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents containing operational information about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These massive data leaks, while lauded by many, underline the tension between a government’s justifiable need for secrecy and the public’s demand for more open and transparent governance. Ironically, Wikileaks will likely lead to less public knowledge of government actions rather than more.

In recent years, there has been an exciting and growing movement pressuring governments to make more of the data that they collect public. Many rightly argue that these data, if released in a machine readable format, can be put to a wide range of beneficial uses. And it is catching on. Many municipal governments have begun to release a wide range of data sets, including property, public transportation, traffic, and crime data. The Liberal party of Canada and the Conservative government in the UK, have both put forward initiatives which would take significant steps in making government more transparent and help citizens to build on the data they have a right to use. This is all unquestionably positive.

By highlighting a core tension in the open data discussion, however, Wikileaks puts much of this progress in jeopardy. While few would argue that leaked data is open data, or that all data should be open, the case of Wikileaks reminds us that data exists on a continuum from highly classified to open. In certain policy areas, we need to think carefully about who we want making the final decision over secrecy—the governments that we elect, or individuals over whom we have no control. No issue better exemplifies this dilemma than national security data.

There are undoubtedly benefits to these latest data releases. First, the more we know about the torture perpetrated by Iraqi and American forces, the less likely we are to give future governments the legal or political authority to do so. Second, the more we know about the shocking levels of civilian casualties, and the strategic and moral consequences of such folly, the more attention we are likely to pay to how and whether our governments fight wars. Third, the data released will provide journalists and scholars with a previously unavailable view into war fighting. Finally, and most importantly, seeing the blunt, gory, and often grotesquely mundane details of war, provide us with a level of honesty about the actions that we as citizens sanction. We are surely better for this.

But there are also costs, two of which will have implications for those seeking more transparent government. First, there is a very real potential that these data will lead to the deaths of Afghan and Iraqi citizens. While Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claims the website scrubbed out information that could harm western forces, ordinary Afghans and Iraqis weren’t as lucky. As a result, the names and locations of people who have risked their lives to help us have been made public. Even if none of these people are ever harmed, shouldn’t it be our democratic government making this decision, not a disgruntled junior soldier or a highly secretive organization? Leaving such decisions to the discretion of Assange is grossly irresponsible.

Second, these releases of data will likely lead to a more closed government. While many interpret it as progress when any and all data is made public, these national security releases will likely have the opposite effect. Much of the information released was classified at a low level. This means that it was widely available to, and presumably used by, a very large number of people in the U.S. military and the diplomatic community. It also makes it susceptible to leaks. The certain result of the leaks is that this type of data will be more highly classified from now on, making it of less use to those tasked with protecting us. Another possibility is that this type of data will no longer be recorded at all, with governments doing more and more of their business verbally, or in absolute secret.

These are bad outcomes for those that want more open and transparent government, as well as for those that believe, as I do, that much more information about how our government fights wars on our behalf should be subject to public scrutiny.

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Review of The Canadian Century

I reviewed The Canadian Century for the Globe and Mail in August, but I forgot to post.  Didn’t get very much feedback on it. Curious what people think, as it (like the book), is a bit provocative…

Some Century Must Belong To Us

In The Canadian Century, Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis have combined a sharp assessment of contemporary public policy with a reinterpretation of a major political figure, Wilfrid Laurier.

The authors present an ambitious argument: Laurier’s principles of economic freedom and the rule of law, limited government, confident engagement with the United States and free trade are advanced as dogmatic certainties that can be used to ensure our national success, dominance even, in the 21st century. Conversely, it is by deviating from this framework that the country has in the past been derailed by protectionism, introspection and a welfare state run amok.

This sweeping re-assessment of a century of Canadian public policy may well be true, but the authors do not provide sufficient perspective through which to assess it. In particular, the way in which the argument is presented suffers from two major flaws: It draws on a highly selective overview of 21st-century history; and it fails to acknowledge its ideological underpinnings.

First, it is only during what the authors call the “redemptive decade” (a short period in the late 1980s and early ’90s that saw a series of provincial and federal spending reforms, as well as the introduction of NAFTA) that Laurier’s plan was implemented.

The question must be asked: Would we have been better off in the rest of the 20th century had we followed Laurier’s guidance? Or were his (and the authors’) policy prescriptions simply ill-suited for the context in which Canada has found itself for most of the past 120 years?

The authors offer that “war, depression and revolution all intervened to drag us down,” but such generality only makes the policy moments chosen to represent the re-emergence of Laurier’s vision risk the appearance of selection bias.

The rest of the century, of course, includes the industrial revolution, the Great Depression, two world wars and the civil rights movement. Would continued unhinged capitalism, rather than regulation, have been the better policy response to the Depression? Should the union movement have been banned during a period of brutal industrialization? How should the economy have changed after the world wars? Do the charter and the civil-rights movements overstep the bounds of individual freedom? We are left to guess.

Second, the book is presented as free from ideology; both Laurier’s and the authors’. While this is likely because the book is being used to promote a promising new think tank, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, it is unfortunate because the argument would be stronger, and more engaging, if the authors were transparent about its ideological grounding.

The Canadian Century is an implicit argument for a fiscally conservative Canada. Wilfrid Laurier’s vision is presented as a conservative one, and the authors clearly believe Canada’s future should be as well.

This is no surprise, as all three are known and respected economic conservatives. But it does point to a failing of the book, one that I think is representative of a broader problem in our public discourse: a predisposition toward “objective” accounts of policy decisions without addressing the ideological foundations that ground them.

It is clear that the authors have isolated a selection of Laurier’s positions that support their ideological predisposition, a small “c” conservative agenda, and the policy moments chosen to represent “redemption” are a hit-list of fiscally conservative successes. The implicit, unacknowledged claim is that Laurier’s agenda was a conservative one.

The problem is that the world the authors paint, one free from ideology, does not exist. Take, for example, the ideological grounding that may have framed Laurier’s worldview. As the authors imply, some of his positions could be considered conservative. But in a turn-of-the-century ideological landscape radically polarized between socialists and mercantilist capitalists, Laurier was far more likely to have been an early progressive than a conservative.

Whereas the conservatism of the time believed that markets should be left unhindered to determine all social outcomes, early progressives, such as Roosevelt in the United States, were centrists who believed that social outcomes could be shaped using both market and government forces.

Seen through this ideological prism, the rise of the social-democratic state would have likely fit nicely into Laurier’s world view. Similarly, as the authors recount, he would certainly have disapproved of the failure of baby boomer progressives to reform the institutions they inherited for a post-industrial economy.

So was Laurier a progressive or a conservative? Depending on the answer, the future policy prescriptions we ascribe to his agenda vary dramatically.

Do we repeat the blunt cuts of the “redemptive decade” and reduce government, as the authors suggest, to “the provision of services like defence, an effective legal system, adequate infrastructure, and the protection of persons and property”? Or should Canada, like the early progressives, seek to use the market to make government institutions more efficient and to deliver desired social outcomes?

Ideology is only negative when it becomes doctrinaire, when we fail to incorporate new realities into our politics. Whereas the Canadian ideological spectrum remains stuck in an out-of-date 20th-century left-right divide, the debate in many other democracies has evolved. The British Cameron-Clegg coalition, for example, was only possible because the Conservative Party spent time and effort while in opposition rethinking its ideological foundation, rather than entrenching it. For Canada to do the same, ideology must be discussed and debated openly and honestly in our think tanks and in our public discourse. It must be re-invigorated, not avoided. But the first step is to acknowledging its influence. On this note, The Canadian Century has fallen short.

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Oped in Globe and Mail

I have the op-ed below on the Globe and Mail website. It’s on why Canada might not be quite as quick to adopt UK-style coalition government as many have suggested. At the very least, we can’t simply compare our political parties based on seat percentages – the ideology matters, and at the moment does not align with British parties. Link is here.

Five reasons David Cameron’s coalition government is not a harbinger for Canada

There has been considerable discussion about what British coalition government means for Canadian politics. Most points to it laying the procedural and ideological precedent for a future coalition government here. While the process may indeed now be more palpable to Canadians, there are at least five reasons why we are unlikely see a similar parliamentary outcome.

1. The New Democrats are not the Liberal Democrats, rather they are more like a relatively unsuccessful Labour Party, one still encumbered by a version of Labour’s Clause Four. When Tony Blair took over, he aggressively signalled his reform agenda by immediately repealing the clause in the party’s constitution that linked them to both the union movement and to a socialist agenda. A similar break has not, and is unlikely to, occur in the NDP. As long as New Democrats remain at their core an anti-liberal party, it is unlikely they will be able to merge with either the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party.

2. The Green Party is the closest thing we have to the Liberal Democrats. Like Nick Clegg’s Lib-Dems, Elizabeth May’s Greens pull policies from across the political spectrum and both are fiscally liberal and socially progressive. However, unless we see electoral reform (allowing the Greens a number of seats proportional to their popular vote), or the Green Party radically alters its electoral strategy (perhaps by ceasing to run candidates in every riding), then they remain highly unlikely to gain the number MPs necessary to hold the balance of power.

3. Stephen Harper is not David Cameron, and the CPC has little in common with the current iteration of the British Tories. Part of what made the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition possible was that Mr. Cameron ran on a quite radical conservative platform. Drawing heavily on the civic communitarian red toryism of Philip Blond, he assuaged Thatcherite economics for what he called “The Big Society.” While voters remained confused by what precisely this entailed, which was part of the reason he fell short of a majority, Mr. Cameron’s deviation from dogmatic free-market conservatism laid the groundwork for the possibility of negotiating with the Lib-Dems. Mr. Harper has of course done no such thing, and as long as the Reform Party wing wields control of the Conservative Party, such a fundamental ideological shift remains highly unlikely.

4. Perhaps the closest equivalent to the British coalition government would be if a liberal faction of the Liberal Party broke off and merged with a re-constituted Progressive Conservative party. This merger, likely to include many Greens, would form a strong fiscally and socially liberal alliance, and would allow for the Reform Party and the NDP to remain true to their ideological pedigrees – a fiscally and socially conservative party, and a socialist democratic party respectively. As long as both the LPC and the CPC still hold hopes (however delusional) of forming a majority government, the odds of such a reconfiguration are nil.

5. Possibly the main lesson of the British coalition is procedural. Brits have once again shown Canadians that they take parliamentary democracy seriously. There was no talk of coalitions with socialists and separatists, Gordon Brown stepped aside with dignity, Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg authored an incredibly thorough agreement that has a legitimate chance of lasting, and the media overall treated the historic events with substance rather than gamesmanship. In short, they were adults.

While the possibility of coalitions governments should at least be part of the Canadian political discourse, unless we see significant electoral reform or a radical reconfiguration of the ideological spectrum and parties that inhabit it, then minorities remain the far more likely outcome.

UPDATE:

6. The Bloc. Despite the fact that the CPC once flirted with a coalition with the Bloc, the tenor of the ‘deal with the separatists’ rhetoric in the 2008 coalition talks makes it hard to imagine anyone entertaining even a voting agreement with them, let alone a coalition government. This of course makes a Liberal-NDP agreement even more unlikely. It is worth noting that only having three main parties made the UK coalition much more manageable, for both negotiators, and the public.

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A few quick comments on the British elections

Commenting on the British election is a bit of a fool’s game, as the variables change hourly, but here are a few quick thoughts based on recent events:

1. Gordon Brown is out, and formal Lib-Lab talks have begun. This was obviously the only choice Brown had. And it stems from the really tough spot that Nick Clegg was initially in. He had to choose between siding with a winner who represented change, but getting no electoral reform, and siding with a loser and getting electoral reform. By forcing Brown out, he can at least argue that he got electoral reform and forced change on the Labour party. This is far from a certain outcome, but Brown’s departure makes it possible.

2. Rumours are that David Cameron has offered Clegg a referendum on alternative voting, but not on single transferable vote. AV is, of course, not proportional representation, but it would benefit the Lib Dems electorally, as they moved from approximately 170 second-place finishes to 240 in this election. I have not seen a calculation of their projected seat count under both systems, but I presume it would be higher using STV. It is, however, unclear whether the Lib Dem base would accept AV. And for reform advocates, is it really wise to have a referendum on a system that none of the parties want or find ideal? Clegg would be wise to pay heed to the B.C. and Ontario experiences with electoral reform referendums in which the proposed changes were voted down. One lesson is you need committed political buy-in to convince people to shift from the status quo. It is not clear whether that exists in the U.K., particularly with regard to AV.

The problem for Cameron of course, is that he simply cannot offer STV. As one Conservative minister reportedly said this morning, “I want to help David. And, to be frank, I want to be a minister even more. But I just can’t live with proportional representation. My seat would be torn up. I could lose my job. And the party would split. It’s a concession too far.” It is unclear whether Cameron can get caucus support for the house vote needed to hold a referendum on either reform, but certainly not STV.

3. It is important to remember that Cameron and Clegg are both more centrist than their respective parties. I’m sure this in part explains what happened this weekend. They may have hammered out the framework of a deal between the two of them, but when they took it to their caucuses on Sunday, the political realities pushed back. Clegg had no choice but to play the Labour card in order to explore the possibility of getting the STV referendum that his caucus and base see as paramount.

4. If a Lib-Lab coalition emerges under a new Labour leader (likely David Miliband or Alan Johnson), it will be the second time in a row that the U.K. will have an appointed Prime Minister. Cameron will have a field day with this, and I bet that Miliband in particular is wary of jumping in now.

5. Which brings up the reality that there are distinct advantages for both the Conservatives and Labour to not hold power at this moment. For Cameron, he could allow a disjointed Lib-Lab-Others coalition to emerge, force them to wear the devastating emergency budget that is inevitable, and then go for a majority in a year or so. For Labour, they could have a leadership race in the fall, allowing time for Miliband to prep the party and manifesto to go up against Cameron after one to two years of deep spending cuts, which, while inevitable, happen to fit nicely into an anti-Thatcherite Labour platform.

No doubt these thoughts will all be irrelevant by dinner. It’s certainly fun to watch though.

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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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Oped in National Post: Canadian vs. British election debates

I have an oped in today’s National Post, (full unedited version below), which uses yesterday’s British election debate as a starting point for a critique of our own, deeply flawed, televised debates. This is the opening salvo in a what we hope will be a reform of our debate system. Much more on this to come in the next few weeks.

LET THE DEBATE BEGIN

Last night, the UK held its first ever televised election debate. Much like the British Question Time puts our equivalent to shame, so too did yesterday’s exchange.

The first of three debates between David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg — leaders, respectively, of Britain’s Conservatives, Labour Party and Liberal Democrats — was on domestic affairs. The second and third will be on the economy and international relations. Drilling down into a single topic allowed for a much more substantive debate than Canada’s one-off events.

The format agreed upon by the leaders encouraged, in the best British parliamentary traditions, aggressive questioning, substantive policy discussion, and very fast passed exchanges.

In contrast, Canadian election debates, despite being held since 1968, are seriously flawed in virtually all aspects – from planning, to format, to distribution, to ad hoc decisions as to who is included.

For starters, our federal debates are decisively not transparent. The debate details are negotiated between the representatives of five networks (under the rubric of the ominous sounding ‘Broadcasters Consortium’), and unelected representatives from each of the major federal parties. These closed-door negotiations encompasses all aspects of the debate, including whether to have a debate at all – in effect giving a veto to any one of the political parties (usually the one leading in the polls).

Second, this flawed negotiation process, unsurprisingly, creates a flawed debate format.

Robert Auer called the infamous 1960 US election debate between Kennedy and Nixon “a double public press conference for simultaneous interviewing.” This is of course the ideal outcome for a politician, and precisely what you get when they make the rules.

Why, for example, do we typically have only one traditional, press conference-style leaders debate (per official language), meant to cover all policy issues? The result is that no matter how the question is formed, a debater can revert to that issue’s talking points. Why not have a range of debates, each on a different issue — as in Britain this year?

But it is not only the parties which are to blame. The role of journalist as moderator also has to be considered. Jeff Greenfield argues that “the dominance of panels by journalists means that there are sharp limits to the degree of aggressiveness you can expect.”

Third, the sole medium used to disseminate the debates – television – is not in and of itself a sufficient way of stimulating public engagement.

If the desired goal of an election debate is public participation, it is retrograde to limit debates to a single live viewing on one medium. The distribution of debate content should be dramatically opened up by moving them online. In addition to allowing many more people to both watch and participate in the debates, this will also serve to democratize the commentary process, which research shows is often more influential than the debate itself.

Fourth, the considerable financial costs of holding the debates are born solely by the broadcasters and their shareholders. The 1997 debates cost $275,000 to produce, plus over $3,000,000 in lost advertising.

Because of this, there have, been elections where the political parties wanted more debates, but the broadcasters refused. If we consider debates to be an important part of the electoral system, it is strange that they are the only aspect not covered by electoral spending laws or by the public financing system.

Finally, language has been a thorny issues throughout the history of Canadian election debates. While the first debate in 1968 was simultaneously translated, we have since moved to having separate French and English debates. In 1993 and 1997 the unilingual Preston Manning argued for a return to simultaneous translation, but the networks argued that it slowed down the debate, made it longer, and less interesting to viewers.

The result is that the French version invariably becomes the “Quebec debate.” Despite network objections, there is absolutely no reason why debates cannot be simultaneously translated, allowing for policy issues to be spread over several debates. (If an aspiring Prime Minister chooses not to speak in both official languages, that’s their headache.)

Despite these flaws, election debates are worth reforming. Well executed, they serve to educate the electorate, provide a measure of accountability, are a critical public testing for candidates seeking our highest office, and in a singularly unique way, build public enthusiasm for elections.

But our election debate system needs wholesale reform.

This reform will not be driven by captive TV networks and self-interested political parties who together have concocted a string of debates that have demonstrably failed the very electorate they purport to inform.

Election debates are for the voters, not the politicians.

Perhaps after seeing the Brits outshine us in the sophistication of their public discourse, Canada will democratize our election debates and thereby elevate the tenor and substance of federal elections.

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Rudyard Griffiths and Taylor Owen are currently working on an initiative to organize a series of “critics” debates for the coming federal election.