Why Stephen Harper wants to debate in the dark

Conservatives are treating the consortium of broadcasters like a union in need of busting
Photo: Shutter Runner

The second poll in as many days, this time by Forum Research, has captured a surge in support for Canada’s New Democrats. Both Forum and EKOS have the NDP in a statistical tie with the Liberals and Conservatives, the highest the NDP have polled since Justin Trudeau was elected Liberal leader. Indeed, most of the NDP’s gains have been at the expense of Trudeau’s party, as the Conservatives remain relatively stable around 30 per cent.

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If the Alberta election result can be said to have given Canadians permission of a sorts to vote NDP, then perhaps C-51, the Conservative surveillance bill, has given them a reason to do so.

Meanwhile, our prime minister seems to have mistaken the consortium of broadcasters seeking to hold a leaders' debate for a union in need of busting.

“We quibbled over format, we quibbled over set design, we quibbled over timing,” explained spokesperson Kory Teneycke, a co-founder of the now defunct Sun News, in announcing that the prime minister would not participate in any debate organized by the consortium, which includes CBC, CTV, Global and Radio-Canada.

Got that? Set design. In reality, there are three main reasons why the Conservatives are taking such an intransigent stance on televised election debates.

Reason 1: Crush the vote

It is often said that in debates, the incumbent is perpetually on the defensive. Nowhere is this more true than in Canada, where multiple opposition parties can gang up on the governing party and its record. The standard for victory in debates for most incumbents is to emerge alive, rather than score a decisive blow of their own.

If young people and those who haven’t voted in the past are motivated to do so, it will help almost every party other than the Conservatives. They hold a rock-steady 30 per cent of the vote, give or take a few points, and their victory depends on a divided opposition and a low voter turnout, transforming that minority of Canadians into an electoral majority.

In Alberta, a decisive debate swung the tide against the incumbent Progressive Conservatives, and less than a week after that shocking result, the federal Conservatives announced their intent to spurn the consortium.

Their reasoning is simple. The fewer voters who watch the debates, the lower the turnout, the more likely Conservative candidates are to win.

Reason 2: Divide and conquer

By ending the multi-channel simulcast of the debate and replacing it with isolated events on individual channels with limited reach, the Conservatives not only guarantee fewer Canadians will be watching, they also reverse the balance of power in their negotiations with the broadcasters.

What that bafflegab about set dressing really alludes to is that the consortium was insufficiently compliant with Conservative demands. By breaking up the consortium, the Conservatives create a group of weak broadcasters in competition with each other and willing to agree to any demand.

As Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne put it, “fairness is hardly likely to be the result of what is happening now — a riot of ad hoc negotiations, carried out simultaneously and in secret among and between each of the parties and a variety of media outlets, with one party, the Conservatives, holding the advantage of incumbency: a debate without the prime minister is a particularly hard sell.”

Into this void swooped U.S. outlet Bloomberg News with an offer to host a debate focused on the economy. As journalist David Akin, formerly of Sun News and now with Postmedia, put it on his Facebook page: “Do we really want to outsource our election debates to a media org owned by a US billionaire moderated by a guy who lives in Brooklyn? I don't.”

Reason 3: Control Quebec

By eschewing the consortium and agreeing to a proposal by Quebecor-owned TVA, Conservatives are shifting the French debate to an ideologically friendlier network, and getting rid of those pesky Radio-Canada journalists, known for posing tough questions. In so doing, the governing party is passing over our public broadcaster to give a politically allied private station preferential treatment. Quebecor is owned by new PQ leader Pierre-Karl Peladeau, and its chairman is former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Marie-France Kenny, president of the federation of francophone and acadian communities in Canada, told Ricochet that the last debate, in 2011, was already largely centred on Quebec and did little to address the concerns of francophones in other parts of the country.

“Quite frankly, I live in Saskatchewan. I don’t care about the Champlain bridge.”

Although TVA is available to most francophones on basic cable, Kenny’s organization fears that taking the debate away from an outlet with a mandate to serve all French-speaking Canadians and giving it to a private Quebec outlet with no such mandate will make a bad situation worse.

Her organization is calling on the parties to hold at least one French debate on Radio-Canada, in order to ensure equitable access, and asking for an equal number of debates in English and French.

Conduct unbecoming a government

All this might be canny politics, but it feels like dirty pool. The CRTC has announced it won’t intervene, and that means the Conservatives are likely to get their way. As a result we’ll have debates available to fewer Canadians and on terms overwhelmingly favourable to the governing party.

That doesn’t sound fair, does it?

What it sounds like to me is a government so preoccupied with the business of re-election, it has abandoned its obligation to provide good governance.

Meanwhile, this government has no trouble buying prodigious amounts of air time on consortium stations to air Economic Action Plan ads, which are little more than thinly veiled election propaganda, paid for with public money.

It all comes down to communications strategy. Conservatives would rather use advertising, where they hold a decisive financial advantage, to communicate with Canadians. There’s no percentage for them in debating the issues openly and on every airwave possible.

As a communications strategy, I get it. But as public policy, it stinks. So why are the Conservatives allowed to set the rules?

Coyne suggests setting the terms for debates years in advance, by unanimous agreement of parties operating behind what philosopher John Rawls called the “veil of ignorance.”

“Ideally we’d agree to have several debates: not one in each language, as we have in the past. Ideally we’d be sure to invite every party leader of sufficient standing, not exclude the Green leader, as we have in the past. But whatever rules we settled on, they would be rules that had been agreed were fair and the product of a broad democratic exercise, not a hasty profusion of private meetings.

We would have liberated the debates from the Consortium, without delivering them into the hands of vested interests of another kind.”

Coyne is talking about a broad agreement among political parties, but I would take it a step further and propose an independently appointed commission of electors tasked with setting the rules and ensuring debates are as widely available as possible. How better to ensure the process is “fair, and the product of a broad democratic exercise?”

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