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Former CBC News chief: The election debate process is a sham

Globe and Mail Update

Prime Minister Harper's refusal to allow the Green Party leader to participate in the Federal Election Debates is cynical and self-serving, but at least it exposes the sham that Canada's election debate process has become.

After 40 years of relying on Canada's television networks to organize this important event, I believe it is time for Canadians – through the CRTC – to pull the plug on the networks and entrust this vital mission to an independent, non-partisan ‘commission' similar to how it is done in the U.S.

This certainly is a change of position for me. Between 2000 and 2007, as editor-in-chief of CBC News, I was the chair of the fabled “network consortium” that organized the election debates for Canada's last three elections – 2000, 2004 and 2006 – and wrestled with a multitude of issues to make these debates more effective.

In 2006, we discussed the issue of whether the Green Party leader – Jim Harris at the time – should be allowed in the debate, and we decided against it. Although the rules have shifted over time since Canada's first election debate in 1968, the most accepted criteria requires that a political party needs to have representation in the House of Commons as well as proven popular support in the country – which we interpreted to be at least 5 per cent of popular vote reflected in the polls. The Green Party of 2006 had neither.

Early last year, as Canada's new Conservative minority government was under attack in the Commons, I called the networks together to quietly discuss the format of the next debates in case a sudden election became necessary. We invited Ms. May and her senior colleagues to make their case to us.

After they left, the networks privately debated the issue. We never actually reached an agreement that day, although all of the networks were sympathetic to the ‘public service' dimension of the Greens' case. Some networks worried that adding a fifth leader would make the debate "unwatchable" but we all knew that the elephant in the room was actually living at 24 Sussex Drive. And he – the Prime Minister – would effectively have veto power. Within days of the meeting, we were privately told by the Conservative Party representative that Prime Minister Harper would not participate in the debates if the Green Party leader was there.

That was in early 2007. So it's not surprising how it has turned out for this 2008 election – even though the Green Party now has a member in the House of Commons and is averaging between 7 and 10 per cent in national opinion polls.

And therein lies the fatal flaw in Canada's election debate process.

The CRTC and federal courts have reaffirmed the networks' right to ‘produce' this broadcast on their own, without any outside interference. And this is certainly the claim of the networks – including by me when I chaired the ‘consortium' for those seven years. But in reality, the government in power has a veto, and without the Prime Minister's participation, the debate won't happen.

In this instance, I wish the networks had made all of this public by threatening to walk away as a means of mobilizing public pressure.

Furthermore, what makes this year's pattern even worse is that the networks and parties have abandoned the change I introduced in 2006 of adding a second debate (or two extra, if you include French and English.) Like many people, I felt it was absurd that the complexity of a federal election in Canada was reduced to two hours of debating time. In addition, as if to ensure that Canada's debate this time is truly irrelevant, they have scheduled the English-language event for October 2, the same evening as the U.S. vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

This is serious business. An election is intended to protect the heartbeat of a democracy, and a televised leaders' debate is the only opportunity to see them together on the same stage. I think it's high time for an independent, non-partisan commission to step in and urgently provide remedial action.

In the U.S., the “Commission on Presidential Debates”, created in 1987, has come up with a far more illuminating model. The two presidential candidates appear for six hours in three debates, including one devoted solely to world affairs. And this is all accomplished within 29 days, which is a week less than the Canadian election campaign.

Political experts in the United States and Canada are uncertain about how their elections will turn out this autumn, except for two things.

It is more than likely that voter turnout in the U.S. will be a record high, and the turnout in Canada will be a record low.

Does this actually surprise anyone?

Tony Burman is Managing Director of Al Jazeera's English-language news channel based in Doha, Qatar – where he reports it is 45 degrees Celsius and sunny.

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