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No Greens In This Public Sandbox

By Stuart Hertzog
September 9th, 2008

Major parties lock Elizabeth May out of the 2008 leadership debate

Elizabeth MayVICTORIA, BC — Canadians looking for a level political playing field in the current federal election campaign are sorely disappointed by the decision of the nation’s major broadcasters not to invite Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May to take part in the crucial 2008 televised leadership debate.

Most people assume that once an election has been called and parliament dissolved, it’s the duty of the national broadcast networks to offer equal time to all parties to present their policies to the public. If only that were true!

Because there are so many political parties in Canada, it’s commonly accepted as realistic to have only the leaders of the major federal parties debate each other before the unblinking gaze of the television cameras and the nation.

Until recently, it’s been easy to define the major parties. There was a huge gap between the top four — Liberal, Conservative, NDP, and Bloc Québécois — and the multitude of minor parties. But with support for the Green Party consistently reaching into double-digit figures, that equation has now changed.

Now there are five

There are now five parties vying for support in Canada. The Bloc does not run candidates outside Québec, but because of the peculiar nature of the Canadian federation, it is recognised as a major force in Canadian federal politics.

Not so, apparently, the Green Party. Time and again, the Green party has been excluded from the national TV debate. Joan Russow, Jim Harris, and now Elizabeth May, have in turn been denied entry to that vital political sandbox.

Past excuses included that the Green party was not a national party as it couldn’t run candidates in every riding. As I’ve pointed out, neither did the Bloc, but that argument didn’t wash with the head honchos of the national networks.

When Jim Harris applied to be allowed onto the hallowed set (it really did look fake last time), he was turned down on the grounds that the Greens did not have an MP in the House (although it does have a few doctors as members).

Appeal to the Courts

Russow and Harris went to court to have that final excuse set down as the only requirement. May’s last-minute crowning of independent MP Blair Wilson as Canada’s first Green MP was an attempt to jump over that last hurdle.

The fact that Wilson wasn’t elected as a Green could well be used to paint May’s claim as thin. But could Canada’s broadcasters ignore the ruling of the Court that having a lone MP is enough for entry into the national TV debate?

Unfortunately, that’s not at issue any more. Faced with the possibility to feisty Elizabeth May being present at the debate, the Conservative and NDP leaders picked up their marbles and ran away from the sandbox as fast as they could.

One has to wonder whether Stephen Harper and the NDP’s Jack Layton actually lack the intestinal fortitude to put their claim to greenery to the test before the Real Thing; or whether the prospect of four grown men having to debate one feisty woman before a national audience was too much for their self-image.

Not good for Harper and Layton

Either way, the optics don’t look good for Harper and Layton, who could come to rue the day they decided not to play in the same sandbox as Elizabeth May. Public reaction is running strongly against May’s exclusion, and the Greens have promised to pursue the matter in the courts — again. The issue is not dead.

Breathing an audible sigh of relief, the national broadcast consortium announced that faced with the choice between allowing the Green leader into the debate, or having no debate as the big boy’s wouldn’t show if she turned up, they had to opt for the debate. I guess it isn’t exactly marbles that they’re lacking.

Behind the public posturing is a serious issue of fairness. Once parliament is dissolved, each party must have the same chance to present itself on the public airwaves, including the cable channels. Legally, these are public property.

The national broadcasters are licensees of the public airwaves. They are bound by the CRTC to offer a level playing field to all candidates during an election. Besides the token three-minute local broadcasting slots the cable companies provide to candidates, the national television debate is the most important avenue for Canadians to evaluate the leaders of the nation’s parties.

The public’s right to see and hear

It is incumbent on the Courts to establish the right of the public to see in action and compare directly the leaders of the national parties offering candidates for election. This debate is a very public arena. It belongs to the people of Canada – not to the government and certainly not to a consortium of broadcasters.

Televised leadership debates have become a central part of the democratic process in Canada, and in democratic countries throughout the world. Elizabeth May and her lawyer must succeed in persuading the Court of the people’s right to see the national party leaders face off each other, and evaluate them.

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