By ANNA DI CARLO*
The August 6 Maclean’s Magazine leaders’ debate will exclude 14 of Canada’s registered political parties. It is a form of censorship, no matter how much Canadians have been immunized against this particular form of official control over political opinion. It bans the airing of views held by large numbers of Canadians, such as those who stand against Canada’s participation in war, to mention but one example.
This has been the norm ever since the political parties of the establishment were challenged through the formation of other political parties. The power and privilege accorded to the political parties of the establishment is enshrined in official election broadcasting guidelines and has been upheld by the Canadian judiciary as well.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates broadcasting during an election. It is the public authority that determines whether or not the airwaves, which belong to the Canadian public at least in theory, are used for the public good. The CRTC states that “broadcasters in Canada are required to cover elections, and they must give all candidates, parties and issues equitable treatment.” It adds that “equitable doesn’t mean equal — it means that all candidates and parties get some air time to share their ideas on issues with the public.” To illustrate what it means, the CRTC explains the policy on political debates. “Debate programs don’t have to include all parties or candidates. However, broadcasters need to ensure that, in general, they’re informing their audiences on the positions of candidates and parties on the main issues in a reasonable manner.”
Equitable treatment is not precisely defined, as can be seen by the inconsistent inclusion of all parties with some representation in the House of Commons. Generally, the final decision of what is equitable has been dictated by the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP and the private interests they represent. Every election, Canadians wait for their verdict. Green or no Green? Bloc or no Bloc?
Take for example, the arrival of the Reform Party on the scene in 1987. By the time of the 1993 federal election, even though the party had only one Member of Parliament elected in a 1989 by-election, its economically powerful backers ensured that a space was created for it on the national podium, including at the leaders debates in that election.
Once Stephen Harper seized the reins of power through a series of electoral coups, the absence of fundamental democratic rules enabled his penchant for destruction to run wild. As the 2015 election neared, he declared he would not appear in any debate organized by the “Broadcast Consortium” (Global News, CTV, CBC and Radio-Canada). Thomas Mulcair then announced he would not appear in any debate where Stephen Harper is not present. Rules based on power and privilege, it is seen, can be self-servingly changed on whim.
It has taken the arrogance and contempt of the Harper Conservatives for all things public to bring the dangers inherent in this system to the fore.
A system which does not base itself on democratic principles can be manipulated and subordinated to private interests in the blink of an eye. The public authority that was compromised by its failure to uphold the norms and principles of political equality for all has become its own victim. It is up to Canadians to turn this around.
*Anna Di Carlo is National Leader of the Marxit-Leninist Party of Canada (MLPC).
Information on the Maclean’s “Leaders Debate”
The first election debate will be held Thursday, August 6 from 8-10 pm. Hosted by Maclean’s Magazine and moderated by its political editor Paul Wells, it is the first election debate involving leaders of some of the parties with seats in the Parliament since 1984 that is not organized and nationally simulcast by the Broadcast Consortium, currently made up of Global News, CTV, CBC and Radio-Canada.
Called the National Leaders Debate, it features the leaders of four of the 18 registered federal political parties: Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party, Elizabeth May of the Green Party, Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party and Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party. Gilles Duceppe, Leader of the Bloc Québécois the other registered party with seats in the Parliament, was not invited to participate. Neither was Jean-François Fortin, Leader of Forces et Démocratie, which holds two seats in the Parliament although is not yet a registered party.
Most of the articles focusing specifically on the debate published in the days leading up to it come from Maclean’s itself (owned by Rogers), Rogers-owned radio stations and other media outlets such as City TV, OMNI, and CHCH. Rogers-owned News1130 in Vancouver starts by saying that “Maclean’s National Leaders Debate may be only one with all four leaders participating.”
The Globe and Mail, which is also hosting its own non-Consortium debate, on August 4 quoted “experts” saying the debate “will set the tone for the rest of the campaign.”
A Canadian Press story on August 5 notes, “Instead of the traditional pair of televised debates sponsored by a consortium of broadcasters, there will be a series of at least four debates during the campaign sponsored by a variety of sources.”
“Harper refused to take part in the consortium debates and Mulcair said he would not participate in debates where Harper is not present.”
Writing for iPolitics, L. Ian McDonald, editor of Policy magazine and former Mulroney speechwriter, says the August 6 debate is “the real campaign launch.”
On the debate itself, McDonald says, “It won’t be a debate with millions of viewers. For one thing, it’s the first week of August, and voters are on vacation. For another, it will be broadcast only on Rogers channels CITY and Omni, as well as CPAC, and live streamed on the Maclean’s website. And for a third, it’s up against the first U.S. 2016 Republican debate airing on Fox at 9:00 pm, an hour after ours begins.”
Amongst other things McDonald informs that it is the only debate Elizabeth May is invited to attend. She hasn’t been invited to the Globe and Mail, Munk and TVA debates, McDonald says. “And with the NDP walking away from the network consortium debates in October, her invitation to those two events becomes moot,” he writes.
Maclean’s published an editorial April 23 saying “let’s bust the broadcast consortium’s monopoly.” After this on May 20 Harper announced that he would not participate in any election debates organized by the Broadcast Consortium, which are currently scheduled for October 7 (French) and 8 (English). Another French language debate will be broadcast by TVA on October 2.
Writing more recently about why the debate matters, Maclean’s writes:
“Sometimes, in other election years, the stakes of the decision facing Canadians might not have seemed very high: Perhaps the times were tranquil, the results a foregone conclusion, or the differences among parties negligible. That’s obviously not the case this year. There are big questions to resolve about the role of government in the life of the nation. The race is wide open. And the parties have important business to settle among them, on their starkly divergent philosophies of government’s role. It’s a good time to have a debate. We’re looking forward to ours.”
The debate will be televised in English on the City TV channel, in French on CPAC, and in Italian, Punjabi, Mandarin and Cantonese on Omni. It can be heard on Rogers-owned radio stations. The debate will also be broadcast online at macleans.ca, via its Facebook page and on YouTube.
The format is Question and Answer between the moderator, Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells and the leaders of the Conservative Party, NDP, Liberal and Green Parties. The debate is being held in a closed Rogers studio in Toronto without press or audience present. It will last two hours.
The format is divided into five areas of focus: the economy, energy and the environment, democratic institutions, foreign policy and security, in that order.
Each segment will begin with a different party leader given first answer to the questions posed by the moderator. After the first answer other leaders will have the opportunity to respond in no defined order. The moderator is allowed follow-up questions. All questions come from Maclean’s and are not shared with party leaders beforehand.
The debate is followed by a one-hour post-debate analysis show on City TV that will feature Maclean’s Parliamentary bureau chief John Geddes, VICE’s Justin Ling and moderator Wells.